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EPISCOPAL DIVINITY SCHOOL
RECREATING OUR STORIES: A THEOLOGICAL JOURNEY WITH ANGER
ROSEMARIE C. BUXTON
Master of Arts, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1984
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the
Requirements for the degree of
MASTER OF THEOLOGY
© Copyright by
ROSEMARIE C. BUXTON
Supervisor '<lw-^'-0:. r^^ L — -
Kwok Pui Lan, Th.D
William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality
Reader /^CUaj.^^ cA /g^. Ct^-t^^
Lawrence Wills, Th.D
Ethelbert Talbot Professor of Biblical Studies
The Task at Hand
My Own Story
FINDING THE ANGER: OLD TESTAMENT STORIES 6
Sarah's Story: the Oppressed Oppressor
Tamar: Anger as the Prerogative of the Perpetrator
The Levite's Concubine: The Anger of Despair
Jephthah's Daughter: Rewriting the Story
Job's Wife: A Courageous One-Liner
Jezebel: Villain or Hero of the Wrong Side?
Judith: A Postcolonial Hero?
BUT JESUS GOT MAD -THE NEW TESTAMENT 43
Supporting Roles and the Lead Character
Who Do You Say That I Am?
Daring to Interrogate Jesus
The Angry Jesus
4. ANGER IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN TRADITION: WHO HAS THE
PRTV^ILEGE OF ANGER? 61
Early Christianity in Empire
Those Wild Viragos
Who Gets the Orge?
Aristotle: AnEarly Ethic of Anger
Thomas Aquinas: Christian Variations
A Relational Vision: Julian of Norwich
"There Was a Little Girl. . ." Another Story
5. REFLECTING ON OUR STORIES TODAY 80
The Tyranny of Nice and Kind
Rewriting Childhood Stories
Does Anger Make Us Sick?
Another Double Bind
Can We Break the Code?
More Than Surviving Our Stories
To Be a Renegade or To Be in Relation
Anger: The Interstitial Passion
I would like to acknowledge and thank the following individuals and groups for their
support, questions, and advice during the creation of this thesis, which I still consider a work-in-
progress that continues to grow and develop as I continue to read about, contemplate, and
explore the themes of anger through a theological lens:
■ My discernment committee, which two years ago first raised the challenging and
uncomfortable questions that inspired the process that initiated this thesis
■ The members of Education for Ministry (EFM) groups, with whom I have shared
community as a group member and the EFM groups that I have mentored. Your spirit of
theological inquiry and openness about interpreting scripture and your prayerful
encouragement have been a source of inspiration and strength for me.
■ Carter Heyward, whose course. Liberating Jesus, inspired the exploratory paper that first
tackled these issues. Also, your own clear and accessible writing style served as a model
for how I wanted to express my own theological ideas.
■ My thesis advisor, Pui Lan Kwok, with whom I took my first course at EDS, for her
thoughtful and calm encouragement, which relieved my fears about being able to
complete this project, and for her attention to detail in the first reading of my manuscript.
■ Larry Wills, my second reader and curriculum conference adviser, for his fostering of the
spirit of openness that has been key to my EDS experience and for his being willing to
take time to read a thesis that was the size of two theses!
My husband and children, who have put up with me during this process, even when
dinner meant sandwiches or cereal and the house was in disorder and chaos, especially
during those times when I exhibited impatience and anger that was not very "holy" or
constructive, for which I ask their forgiveness.
To the many women in my hfe who have offered support and encouragement in my
spiritual and theological journey. These women include: the Rev. Linda Ricketts, my
EFM and spiritual mentor who started me on this journey; the late Cynthia Mele, who
loved to talk theology and maintained her sense of righteous anger at injustice to the end;
Christianne Humphrey, a dear spiritual friend who shared my journey at EDS; Sr. Jane
Morrissey of Elms College, who gave me the gift of loving literature and who has lived a
life of passion for peace and "holy anger" against poverty and injustice; my sister
Michele, who is also a writer and who gave me advice on how to be disciplined enough
to complete this project; my mother, Rhea, who is a model of faithfulness, patience and
nurture; and my dear Meme, Rose, who loved me unconditionally and who lived to be
102 "just to vex everyone."
The Task at Hand
From ancient times to the present, anger has been viewed ambivalently. Anger can be a
source of aggression, violence, and destruction, but properly channeled and expressed, it can also
be a powerful agent for change. It has been defined as an emotion, a character flaw, pathology,
and in the Christian tradition, as sin. It is an emotion that often arouses discomfort in those who
experience it and those who are witnessing it.
At the same time, it is an essential emotion, one that gives us life and energy. Carol
Saussy, who has done anger work with women, once asked her group to name words that were
the opposite of anger: "I heard positive words such as equanimity, serenity, peace, security,
happiness. I also heard the words despair, death, hopelessness, fear, stuckness...The opposite of
anger, some said, is nonfeeling, numbness, death."' Lynn Brakeman states her feelings about
anger openly: "Anger is my best buddy. I love her. She has chutzpah." Yet, where are the
stories about women's anger? Where is the theology that addresses this passion in ways that are
meaningful to women? Who expresses and who is allowed to express anger within the literature
of our tradition - sacred scripture and theological writings - says something not merely about
anger, but about power dynamics and gender. Powerful individuals - God, Biblical male
heroes, and rulers of nations - get to express anger; those who don't have that power are often
' Carroll Saussy, The Gift of Anger: A Call to Faithful Action (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press,
Lynne Brakeman, Spiritual Lemons: Biblical Women, Irreverent Laughter, and Righteous Rage (Philadelphia, Pa.:
Innisfree Press, 1997), 47.
not heard from. For women within the Jewish and Christian tradition, where are the models for
handUng anger, for expressing it, for using it constructively? The task of this thesis is to conduct
a journey through the spiritual history of that tradition. In that journey, I will walk through some
early stories of sacred history, including both stories in Hebrew scripture and the stories about
Jesus. This journey will also examine some theologies of anger in early Christianity. Finally, I
want to explore some of the ways that contemporary women's stories of anger have been
affected by both the traditional teachings on anger and the societal structures prohibiting
women's anger, but also, I wish to examine how women's stories can transcend these teachings
and structures to eventually become transformative for women themselves and sometimes even
for the world around them.
My Own Story
Like many women who were raised within an organized religious institution, namely, the
Roman Catholic Church, I had many encounters with anger in my spiritual and emotional
history, and I believed that many of these issues had been resolved when I converted to the
Episcopal Church, which had more liberal stances on the position of women in leadership roles.
However, the issue of anger and the acceptability of its expression resurfaced as part of the
discernment process as a small group of men and women within my parish and I talked,
questioned, and prayed about whether ordination was a ministry to which I was called. The
result of the process was my decision and the committee's that I was not a "good fit" for that
role, but another result was my further questioning about the discomfort that the expression of
certain emotions evoked in the committee. If the call was not to ordination, I certainly felt that
there was a call to explore anger, its expression, repression, and the discomfort that many of us
feel about this emotion.
As part of the discernment process, I had to present to the parish discernment committee
a written spiritual autobiography. The cathartic point of this autobiography was my decision to
leave the Roman Catholic Church and join to the Episcopal Church. In discussing my decision
to leave the Roman Catholic Church, I wrote of my anger at that institution's exclusion of
women and of its rigid strictures around being at the Lord's Table, both as a celebrant and a
conmiimicant. I also spoke of my anger at God and my feelings of abandonment when I
realized, as an overwhelmed young mother of two toddlers with another baby on the way, that I
had a child with a learning disability, yet I was immersed in a tradition where my feelings of
anger and despair were unacceptable to bring to the altar. I concluded with a discussion of the
resurrection experience of being received at an "open table" in my first experience of Eucharist
in an Episcopal Church and later of the powerful experience of receiving communion for the first
time at the hands of a woman. Bishop Barbara Harris.
While my committee appreciated the honesty of my story, one member of the committee
expressed concern about the amount of anger in my spiritual autobiography. This member
(strangely enough, a woman!) questioned whether someone who had experienced this much
anger would be capable of handling herself in difficult pastoral situations, such as visiting elderly
folks who were impatient and argumentative. Although I understood that it was important for
the questioner to "screen out" someone who might behave inappropriately in a pastoral situation,
I also found the line of questioning disturbing. Once a person becomes an ordained minister,
must he or she censor emotions?
The committee can't be entirely faulted for this apparent perception. Within parish
culture in most denominations, there is a culture of "chronic niceness" in which the clergyperson
is expected to leave any negative emotions unexpressed. Of course, this expectation might have
its own undesired consequences, such as clergy burnout or outbursts. However, the committee's
discomfort with my expression of anger may have had other sources, as well.
Only a few weeks before, our associate rector, a young father and a very gentle man, had
given a sermon about Abraham and Isaac. In his interpretation, he focused not merely on the
traditional analysis of the theme of radical obedience, but on the issue of the shocking nature of
the apparently violent intention of parent against child. His interpretation involved talking
openly about the anger that some parents feel toward their children, and that this Biblical story
might even be a parable of God being present with us in that situation. Many of the congregants,
especially parents of teenagers, actually identified with and appreciated his realistic attitude! No
one in that audience would suggest that this young priest, because he admitted to anger, would
go off on his pastoral visits and behave badly with elderly people! Yet, in my discernment
process, here was the question of whether I, a middle-aged woman who expressed anger against
a specific institutional structures and destructive theologies, was sufficiently in control to deal
with issues of conflict or difficult personalities in pastoral care. Why was the young priest's
relating of his own story of parental anger to the story of Abraham a source of comfort to
parishioners, while my own story was one of discomfort?
^ Alastair V. Campbell, The Gospel of Anger (London: SPCK, 1986), 60. Campbell cites D. W. Augsburger's
description of the problem of "chronic niceness": "Chronic niceness in a pastor tends to elicit comparable niceness
in others, with the result that negative feelings are not really shared and resentments accumulate. When the pastor's
controls are finally overloaded, temper outbursts occur, with mixed results."
This question led me to reflect on other stories of anger within the Jewish and Christian
traditions, particularly as they relate to women, some of the history of the theology and ethics of
anger, and finally, on the psychological, pastoral, and even health consequences for women of
the expression and repression of anger. What was particularly intriguing was the difference
between what were allowable or acceptable expressions of anger of those in power and those
who have been historically powerless: women, people of color, people of lower economic and
social class, and other marginalized people. In fact, sometimes, anger is often significant not for
its presence, but for its absence of expression. Sometimes the anger is evident, but sometimes, it
is the "elephant in the room" that remains unspoken.
FINDING THE ANGER: OLD TESTAMENT STORIES
As with my brief spiritual autobiography and with the young priest's sermon, the
examination of anger can often be understood through story, and within the Jewish and Christian
tradition, those stories are found in the Bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the stories of women's
anger, or even of women who have any kind of agency over their own lives, are difficult to find.
Anger is usually either the prerogative of males in power - warriors and kings - or of God, who
is depicted as being angry throughout a good deal of Hebrew Scripture. When women do
express anger, as in the case of Sarah or Jezebel, they are usually in positions of power. In three
instances, the story of the rape of Tamar, the story of the Levite's concubine, and the story of
Jephthah's daughter, the women have just cause to be angry, but the males are the ones who have
the privilege of expressing that emotion. In fact, some subversive reading, and in the case of
Jephthah's daughter, some midrashic retelling of the story, is required to examine and reveal
women's anger. Only one woman's story, the tale of Judith, which appears in the Apocrypha,
gives a woman full power to express anger constructively and to exercise agency over her own
life and destiny, and even over the fate of her community.
Sarah's Story: the Oppressed Oppressor
The young priest at my church retold the story of Abraham and Isaac as a metaphor for
parental anger, although many scholars might argue that this biblical story is not about anger, but
about obedience and trust. However, another character in the Abrahamic story provides some
interesting insights about understanding anger, particularly anger within patriarchal social
structures: Abraham's wife, Sarah. One cannot say that she is the first angry person in the
Bible. Cain has that honor. And of course, God is angry a good deal of the time, having already
knocked down the Tower of Babel, and in a fit of rage over the sinfulness of humanity, produced
a flood that nearly destroyed the earth and most of its living inhabitants, save Noah, his family,
and a selection of animals.
Sarah's story of anger is not a rage against injustice or the anger of a warrior, but the
mean-spiritedness of a bitter woman. Unable to bear a child, she tells Abraham to go to her
maid, Hagar, so that he may conceive a son by her. Once Hagar becomes pregnant, however,
Sarah perceives that Hagar is showing contempt for her, and in return, Sarah abuses Hagar so
badly that the pregnant young woman leaves. God speaks to Hagar directly and instructs her to
return to her mistress and "submit," for God will make her the mother of nations. The Lord
resolves Sarah's barrenness and she gives birth to Isaac, but later on, as Sarah observes her child
playing with Ishmael, she is again overcome with jealousy and ultimately casts Hagar out
permanently. Hagar is watched over and cared for by Yahweh, who promises that she and her
offspring will also be the source of a great nation.
According to Alice Ogden Bellis, "Sarah does not impress most feminist readers as a
positive role model. Womanist theologian Dolores Williams suggests that Sarah 'has been
viewed as the haughty (white? Jewish?) slave owner seemingly unconcerned with her role as
victimizer.'"^ Many feminist and womanist critics read the story of Sarah and Hagar as one of
class, ethnic, and even racial oppression of a foreigner of the serving class by a woman of
Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes : Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville, Ky.:
Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 73.
privilege." Feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible provides an exegesis of the story of Sarah and
Hagar in her Texts of Terror where she draws parallels between the oppression of Hagar and that
of marginalized women everywhere: "As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many
things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She
is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the
ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse. . ." Those of us who
may consider Sarah our ancestress cannot afford to ignore the implications of Sarah's treatment
However, a thorough reading of the Sarah's story reveals that Hagar is not the only
victim of oppression. In two places in Genesis, Chapter 12, in which Sarah and Abram journey
in Egypt and in Chapter 20, in Mamre, Abraham represents Sarah as his sister in order to get
better treatment from the rulers of those countries. In the first story, Sarah actually lives in the
Pharaoh's house, which means that her Abraham may have traded her sexual favors his own
benefit, a benefit which included a good quantity of livestock and servants: "sheep, oxen, he-
asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses and camels" (Gen. 12.16). However, the jig is up
when Pharaoh's household is afflicted with plagues, and Abraham must reveal the truth. In
Mamre, God prevents Abimelech from sleeping with Sarah by speaking to him in a dream. In
this story, Abraham says that he was not actually lying when he called Sarah his sister because
she is indeed his half-sister from his father's relationship with another wife (Gen. 20.12). But he
also reveals that he has counseled Sarah to enact this "white lie" during most of his travels to
Ibid., 70-79. , Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Just Wives? : Stories of Power and Survival in the Old Testament and
Today (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 7-25.
Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress
Press, 1984), 28.
foreign areas, "And when God caused me to wander from my father's house, I said to her. This
is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me. He is my brother'"
(Gen. 20.13) Even Phyllis Trible, whose reading of Sarah is in no way positive, admits: "To be
sure, on two occasions Abraham betrays her, passing her off as his sister to protect himself."
Sarah's status as a woman in her culture is also profoundly affected by her barrenness:
"Having children, especially sons, was of central importance to Israel's culture."^ Sarah is
faulted for not having sufficient faith and for taking control of the situation of her childlessness
by proposing the surrogacy; however, when she proposes the idea to Abraham in chapter 16,
God's promises to make of Abraham a great nation have been heard by Abraham alone. Sarah
has heard no such promise from God. In fact, Sarah's barrenness has caused her bitterness and
yes, even anger against Yahweh. Her opening to her proposition to Abraham is: "The Lord has
prevented me from bearing children." (Gen. 16.2) How can Sarah trust in a God who has dealt
with her so arbitrarily and even cruelly? What relationship does she have on which to base such
trust - a relationship with a spouse who passes her around to obtain favors and gifts from foreign
rulers? Even if offering the hospitality of one's wife's sexual favors to one's host was a
customary practice, if Sarah's trust in a male God is predicated on the treatment she could expect
from the other significant males in her life, such trust probably did not rest on very solid ground.
When Sarah finally learns that she is to be a mother, she is not told directly, but overhears
the news while listening behind the tent door. Esther Fuchs asserts that "Sarah is marginalized.
She appears only in contexts where her sexuality or reproductive ability comes into play, and
^ Ibid., 9.
Sakenfdd, Just Wives?, II.
even then her role is Hmited. This is particularly evident in the annunciation scene, in which she
is literally sequestered in the tent, where she can only overhear the birth announcement." When
Sarah hears the news, she laughs, and the laughter is certainly bitter laughter, as she comments
with ironic humor, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" (Gen.
Once Hagar conceives, Sarah's position now becomes unbearable for her as she realizes
that the ability to bear a child may even supercede economic and social status: "Economic
standing is not everything, however, and once Hagar conceives she has the one thing that Sarah
cannot achieve - the honor that is ascribed to a pregnant woman in a society that values and
needs children so highly, especially the honor that comes from carrying the child of the head of
the household." She perceives Hagar as treating her with contempt, and the young woman's
presence becomes so intolerable that Sarah abuses her to the point that Hagar flees the
household. Sarah the victim has now become the oppressor: "As presented in the text, she is a
victimizer of Hagar, but she is also a victim of a value system that valued women only for their
reproductive capacity." One author. Norma Rosen, suggests in her midrash on Isaac, that Sarah
is subject to an additional victimization - she ends up believing that she has lost the very gift that
God has promised her. From the omission of any mention of Sarah after the sacrifice of Isaac,
until Sarah's burial in Mamre, Rosen creates a midrash about the circumstances of Sarah's death:
Esther Fuchs cited in Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, 72.
^ SdktnioXd, Just Wives?, 16.
Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, 14.
"When the messenger came with the news — 'Abraham Hfted the knife to slay your son, but Isaac
is spared from death!' — she heard only the first part and dropped dead before clause two."^
In the implications of this midrash, Sarah is like the Greek Clytemnestra, who comes
home and finds that her husband, Agamemnon, has sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to get
victory over Troy. Garret Keizer in The Enigma of Anger, talks about the anger and despair of
women who are defined by their roles, only to feel as if they have been negated when even those
roles have been taken away. He describes this situation in an ironic rephrasing of the well-
known Gospel verse: "Whoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from her
shall be taken even that which she seemeth to have." Sarah is the first of many Biblical
mothers to have experienced the birth of a beloved child only to contemplate losing that child as
a sacrifice to God. Other biblical women, such as Hannah and the mother of Samson, realize that
the end to their barrenness also involves the pledge to dedicate the beloved first born to God.
And another mother, Mary, accepts her pregnancy only to submit her son, Jesus, to a sacrificial
death. What is surprising is that unlike in Greek tragedy, there are relatively few wild and
raging women in the Bible.
The first woman fully portrayed in the Bible after Eve is Sarah, an angry woman who
exerts her power over another woman as an oppressor, but a woman who has suffered from her
own oppression. This is not the righteous anger of an outraged deity, a warrior, or a prophet, but
anger that is bitter and shame-based. What is the implication of this first image of an angry
woman? Furthermore, what is the implication about the relationship between these two women,
Norma Rosen, "Rebekah and Isaac: A Marriage made in Heaven," in Out of the Garden: Women Writers in the
Bible, ed. Christina Buchman and Celina Spiegel (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994), 17.
Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002),
the angry mistress and her servant? Alice BelHs suggests that the narrative itself is supportive of
patriarchy and denigrates the ability of women to deal with either their emotions or each other:
"Some commentators view Sarah as almost as much a victim as Hagar...The narrative subtly
suggests that because women can't get along with one another, sisterhood is not a viable
alternative to patriarchy."'^
Tamar: Anger as the Prerogative of the Perpetrator
In fact, women's anger in the Bible is more conspicuous by its absence than by its
presence. The Hebrew Bible features numerous instances of women who have cause to be angry
but are never given the opportunity to express that anger - Dinah who is violated, but who never
asked her brothers to commit mass slaughter of her violator- turned-spouse's tribe; Jephthah's
daughter, whose life is the blood sacrifice in payment for his victory in battle; the many women
who are raped, murdered, or abused, either by conquerors or by their own warring tribes and
even family members. These women's anger and sometimes even the women themselves
remain unnamed. To recount all their stories would be beyond the scope of this thesis.
One woman who has reason for anger is Tamar, the daughter of David, yet in her story,
she is not the one who expresses that emotion. Instead, that emotion remains the prerogative of
the male family members who have "ownership" of her: her brothers Amnon and Absalom.
Tamar is the beautiful daughter of David, so beautiful that her brother Amnon desires her.
"Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar" (2 Samuel 13.2).
Amnon's friend Jonadab, "a very crafty man" concocts a plan to help Amnon fulfill his desire.
Jonadab counsels Amnon to pretend to be ill; then, when David comes to inquire after his son,
Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, lA.
Amnon should request that Tamar be sent to his room to prepare food for him. In her Hterary-
feminist reading of the story, Phylhs Trible describes the men who plot around Tamar as
completely encircling her. The son, Amnon, uses his father, the king's power, to obtain Tamar,
who is no longer a person, but a desired object. Trible notes that when David visits his sick son,
he is not named: "So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see
him, Amnon said to the king..." (2 Sam. 13.6). Trible notes: "The son's request becomes the
king's order... No familial language relates father and daughter — only two commands that
compel disaster."^^ Although one would think it is the father's role to protect the daughter,
instead, the king's command hands her over to his son. Tamar is asked to go to Amnon's room
and prepare food for him "in his sight," but it is the sight of Tamar, not the sight of the food, that
Amnon wants. Thus, according to Trible, "In obeying David, Tamar has become the object of
Amnon grabs hold of Tamar and insists that she lie with him. She resists, citing that to
do so would be a foolish action: "Do not do this wanton folly. As for me, where could I carry
my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the wanton fools in Israel" (2 Sam. 13. 12-
13). Trible, throughout her exegesis, characterizes Tamar as a figure of wisdom, in contrast to
Amnon, and even the superficially crafty Jonandab, who are figures of foolishness.^"^ Tamar
even tries to argue that Amnon should try to acquire her legitimately by going to their father,
David: "Now, therefore, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you" (2 Sam.
13.13). Tamar is well aware of the system in which she is trapped: "Her words are honest and
Trible, Texts of Terror, 42.
'^ Ibid., 43.
'^ Ibid.,, 37-57.
poignant; they acknowledge female servitude." Tamar is her father's property, and if her
brother must possess her, at least she can plea that he do it legitimately so that she can have the
protection of marriage. Tamar is half-sister to Amnon, rather than full sister, and according to
the notes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, "At that time a man could marry his half sister,
though later this practice was forbidden." ^^ Even this "protection" is that of an object with no
rights; Tamar is her father's, David's property, so Amnon, her brother must ask for his
permission. Both the father's rights and the brother's desires have priority over Tamar' s own
rights and desires.
In any case, Amnon 's lust closes his ears to Tamar' s wisdom and pleading. The RSV
reads, "He would not hsten to her; and being stronger than she, he lay with her" (2 Sam. 13.14).
Trible's translation makes Tamar' s voicelessness in the face of Amnon' s lust even more
apparent: "He did not want to hear her voice. "^^ After the rape, the expectation might be that
Tamar is the one to express anger, but ironically, Amnon is the angry one: 'Then Amnon hated
her with very great hatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love
with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, 'Arise and be gone'" (2 Sam. 13.15).
Trible translates the Hebrew text as being not "love", but "desire," making more explicit
Amnon's lust: "In using the word desire ( 'hb) to describe Amnon's feelings for Tamar (13.1, 4),
this line shows that all along the desire was lust, not love. Having gratified itself, lust deepens
into hatred." Amnon then commands that Tamar be cast out: "Put this woman out of
^^ Ibid., 45.
"^ Herbert Gordon May and Bruce Manning Metzger, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 391 n.
Trible, Texts of Terror, 46.
'^ Ibid., 47.
presence, and bolt the door after her" (2 Sam 13.17). Trible claims that the word "woman" is not
in the original text, but only the word "this", further objectifying Tamar: "The Hebrew has only
the demonstrative this. For Amnon, Tamar is a thing, a 'this' he wants thrown away. She is
If Tamar is the one whose rights and body have been violated, why is Amnon the one to
get angry? Andrew Sung Park's analysis of shame anger and guilt anger provide a key to this
aspect of the story. Park describes shame anger as "the assertive anger of the offended."
Those whose rights have been violated feel shame anger, and when they express that anger, they
are giving voice to the injustice that they have experienced, and they may even instigate change.
The anger that Amnon experience is not shame anger, but guilt anger, which is aggressive: "It is
the oppressive or controlling action of offenders toward those whom they have targeted." Park
specifically cites the story of Amnon's rape of Tamar as an example of the expression of guilt
anger: "Amnon's response reveals guilt anger welling up from his painful consciousness of the
immorality and violence of his actions. "^^
However, Tamar herself never expresses anger. She protests against Amnon sending her
away, "No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other which you
did to me" (2 Sam. 13.16). Phyllis Trible emphasizes that Tamar remains the voice of wisdom,
pleading for justice, but "she does not allow anger to cloud her vision. "^^ Again, Amnon refuses
to hear her voice: "But he would not listen to her." Tamar' s final "words" are inarticulate, the
^■^ Ibid., 48.
Andrew Sung Park, From Hurt to Healing : A Theology of the Wounded (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press,
^' Ibid., 57.
^^ Ibid., 58.
Trible, Texts of Terror, 47.
cry of the woman who has been shamed: "And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent the long
robe which she wore; and she laid her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she
went" (2 Sam. 13.19). Another male, her brother Absalom, ultimately has the "last word" as he
bides his time and ultimately takes his revenge against Amnon. Absalom, unlike Tamar, is
heeded in his anger and is allowed both to voice and act upon it. Tamar' s wisdom is not heeded
and does not protect her: "Who will preserve sister wisdom from the adventurer, the rapist with
his smooth words, lecherous eyes, and grasping hands? In answering the question, Israel is
found wanting - and so are we. "
What would the outcome have been if Tamar had used not the words of rationality and
wisdom, but had instead demonstrated anger? Unfortunately, the result could have been the
same or worse. The penalty for anger can still mean that a woman's voice is ignored, or more
seriously, the penalty for her anger can even be death. In her book, The Gift of Anger, Carol
Saussy distinguishes between the anger of hope and the anger of despair, and she believes that
the anger of despair is the undercurrent in many of the biblical stories of women. The anger of
hope is an expression of anger with the expectation that injustice can be exposed and corrected,
but the anger of despair exists in situations when the person who is angry is powerless to change
the circumstances or situation that arouse anger. According to Carol Saussy, "The anger of
despair was surely experienced by some of the women in the bible who were raped, murdered,
and sacrificed by their fathers, husbands, and brothers. The narratives themselves do not
'' Ibid., 57.
recognize or acknowledge the anger of the women, let alone allow them to express their
The Levite's Concubine: the Anger of Despair
One story that illustrates the anger of despair is that of the Levite's concubine in Judges.
According to Saussy, "The text does not say why the concubine became angry with her husband,
only that she was angry and returned to her father's home." Phyllis Trible calls attention to the
disparity in positions between the Levite and the concubine: "A Levite has an honored place in
society that sets him above many other males; a concubine has an inferior status that places her
beneath other females. Legally and socially, she is not the equivalent of wife but is virtually a
slave, secured by a man for his own purposes." Trible asserts that the surprise in the situation
is that "The lowly concubine acts." The RSV reads: "And his concubine became angry with
him, and she went away from him to her father's house" (Judges 19.2). Trible says that the
Hebrew text suggests that she "played the harlot;" however, "the Greek and Old Latin maintain
that 'his concubine became angry with him.'" Thus, the question that arises is: "Was she
unfaithful to him or did he cause her anger?" In any case, the concubine's actions reverse the
expected power relationship: 'Though called his concubine, she deserts him."
Scripture is full of counsel about angry and ill-tempered wives. In the Jerusalem Bible
translation, the Book of Sirach describes the angry wife: "I would sooner keep house with a lion
Carroll Saussy, The Gift of Anger : A Call to Faithful Action, Istd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox
Press, 1995), 103.
^^ Ibid., 104.
Trible, Texts of Terror : Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, 66.
^* Ibid., 66.
^^ Ibid., 66.
^° Ibid., 67.
or dragon than keep house with a spiteful wife. A woman's spite changes her appearance and
makes her face as grim as any bear's" (Sir. 25.17) To desire to reconcile with such a wife, as
the Levite does, makes him an exceptional man, even the hero of the story, and the Levite's
reason is contrasted with the concubine's angry irrationality: "In a fit of anger his concubine left
him and returned to her father's house... Her husband set out to visit her, to reason with her and
fetch her back" (Judges 19.2-3). In the Revised Standard Version, the picture is one of the
compassionate husband: "Then her husband arose and went after her to speak kindly to her and
bring her back." Trible says that the Hebrew translation is even warmer, that the husband goes
"to speak to the heart" of the woman. This initially reasonable and compassionate behavior
from the Levite proves to be superficial, as the story unfolds to reveal what the Levite does once
he has reacquired his desired lost possession.
After the Levite has succeeded in reclaiming his wife and remains as a guest at the father-
in-law's house, the balance of power is restored, and the concubine fades into the background as
the father-in-law welcomes the Levite warmly and persuades him to remain five days. The men
eat and drink together, "apparently excluding the concubine from their companionship."''^
Phyllis Trible makes this neglect of the woman even more explicit: "A journey 'to speak to her
heart' has become a visit to engage male hearts, with no speech to her at all."
Finally, at the end of the fifth day, the Levite decides to depart with his concubine and
servant, even though it is near evening. As evening is upon them, the Levite decides to stay in
Gibeah. An old man offers them hospitality, and while the men are "making their hearts merry"
^' Alexander Jones, The Jerusalem Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), 498.
^^ Trible, Texts of Terror, 67.
^^ Saussy, The Gift of Anger, 104.
"* Trible, Texts of Terror, 69.
(Judges 19.22), a gang of men from the city demand the Levite be handed over to him so that
they may "know" or rape him. The host offers his virgin daughter and the concubine, but the
men reject this offer. So, the Levite pushes the concubine out the door, and the gang of men
spends the night raping and abusing her. Trible underscores that "the Hebrew omits the direct
object her" when describing pushing the woman out the door, further depersonalizing her. In
the beginning of the story, the concubine, who was a woman who had acted, now becomes "no
longer a subject with power to act. Instead, she is the violated property of the master who
In the morning, when the Levite opens the door, he finds the unconscious woman on the
threshold. Does he speak kindly to her now? "'Get up, let us be going.' But there was no
answer" (Judges 19.28). Trible cites the Greek text as stating that the woman was dead, but the
Hebrew text remains silent on the matter. The Levite puts her on his donkey and brings her
home, where he cuts her up in twelve pieces, which he sends throughout the twelve tribes of
Israel as a testament and plea for revenge. Carol Saussy finds that the ambiguity of whether the
woman is dead or alive makes this last act even more horrifying.
As with Amnon, who rapes Tamar and then expresses anger after the deed, the Levite,
who never acknowledges his own responsibility in his wife's rape and death, feels entitled to his
anger. Is his anger guilt anger, or merely anger that his property has been violated and
destroyed? Because she was his concubine, he feels that he has the prerogative of the righteous
anger of an owner whose property that has been defiled. His own role in casting her out to her
" Ibid., 76.
^^ Ibid., 77.
" Ibid., 77.
Saussy, The Gift of Anger : A Call to Faithful Action, 104.
defilers is not foremost in his mind, nor does he acknowledge that her violation is what has
ensured his own bodily integrity and even possibly his life.
And what of the woman? According to Carol Saussy, one can draw one's own
conclusions about why she originally left her husband from the Levite's behavior at the end of
the tale: "One can surmise that when the concubine returned to her father's house, she left her
husband in anger because she was abused or treated unjustly. That can only be surmised because
the text gives her no voice." A modern reader might ask how different this woman's tale is
from the stories of the battered woman who leaves her husband only to return to him when he
vows with tender words never to repeat the abuse again, but once she returns, the cycle of
neglect and abuse only resumes, and sometimes even escalates. If, as Trible asserts that the
Hebrew text suggests, she "played the harlot," then one might wonder whether the Levite's
neglect and abuse may have contributed to the concubine's straying from the bonds of marriage.
In the story of the Levite's concubine, any anger from the woman except the anger that initiated
her desertion of her husband remains unspoken in the text: "The anger she must have
experienced as her father and husband enjoyed their days pales before the anger she knew when
she was sacrificed to save her husband from a homosexual rape. Her voice was silenced forever.
The anger of despair? Again, there is only silence. ""^^ Whether the concubine's transgression
was anger or actual infidelity, the penalty is clear: eradication of her voice, destruction of her
body in every imaginable and unimaginable way, and death.
^^ Ibid., 104-105.
^" Ibid., 105.
Jephthah's Daughter: Rewriting tlie Story
Sometimes, the only way for women to deal with such stories is by rewriting them. If
the anger is not voiced, then perhaps another woman must voice it in a creative reenactment of
the story. Lynn Brakeman does this with the story of Jephthah's daughter in her book of
midrashes on Biblical women, Spiritual Lemons. In this story, Jephthah, a military commander
beset by a number of insecurities, vows to Yahweh that if Jephthah were granted victory over the
Ammonites, he would sacrifice whoever walks through the door when he returns in triumph.
Jephthah is illegitimate, Gilead's son by a harlot, who was cast out by Gilead's legitimate sons
(Judges 11.1-3). Phyllis Trible cites Jephthah's insecurity and lack of trust, despite God's
promises and Jephthah's role as military leader: "The chosen savior, endowed with the spirit of
Yahweh, is nevertheless unsure of divine help and insecure about the future among those who
had once rejected him."^^ In Brakeman' s retelling, Jephthah is not merely insecure and lacking
in trust; he is a coward: "All her life she had heard her father bemoan his sin of fear. It was
now as it had always been with him: He had opened his mouth before the Lord in haste, trying
to prove his faith. He had promised a sacrifice in return for a victory. And she had been that
sacrifice. A victory he had won. A daughter he had lost.""^^
Jephthah's cowardice is revealed not only in his vow, but also in his response as his
daughter walks in the door: "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have
been the source of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot
take back my vow" (1 1.25). Like Tamar's brother-rapist, Amnon, Jephthah is angry with the
Trible, Texts of Terror, 96.
Lynne Brakeman, Spiritual Lemons : Biblical Women, Irreverent Laughter, and Righteous Rage (Philadelphia,
PA: Innisfree Press, 1997), 47.
victim and blames her for his own crime. In Phyllis Trible's translation, Jephthah says, "You
have become my calamity," which "intensify the condemnation of the child by her father.""^^
Now, the responsibility is no longer Jephthah' s, but his daughter's; it is her fault for walking in
the door at the wrong time, not his for making the vow.
At this point, it is useful to point out the association between anger, privilege, and blame
in these stories. Garret Keizer has some pertinent insights on this issue, particularly in relation
to male anger:
We blame the victim of an injustice in order to stay calm in the face of the status
quo. . .the blamer presumes a certain superiority. The blamer is the one without
sin, who dares cast the first stone. It is he who exists to be pleased, he whose
business of the greatest importance, he whose prerogative it is to interpret the
merits and demerits of a given issue. The blamer may not be in control, either of
the situation or his own emotions, but he acts as though he was somehow in
In most of the stories discussed so far, the male takes on the role of the "blamer" to somehow
regroup and assert his own power. Jephthah makes an ironic assumption of power by being
angry and blaming his daughter, but the vow he made was actually a revelation of his own
powerlessness. Amnon similarly rages at and blames Tamar, but he is the one who has exhibited
behavior that is out of control. Finally, the Levite, who was trapped in a situation where he
chose to sacrifice his wife to save his own skin, ends up by blaming the Benjaminites for what
happened, maintaining his own sense of superiority and illusion of control.
In the story of Jephthah's daughter, the young woman is the one who takes the high road,
accepting her fate calmly and courageously: "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the
Trible, Texts of Terror, 102.
Keizer, The Enigma of Anger, 103.
Lord, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth" (Judges 1 1.26). However,
the wording of her reply is significant; she clearly places the responsibihty with Jephthah: "you
have opened your mouth... do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth. " She
asks only that she be allowed to go to the mountains and mourn her virginity with her
In Lynn Brakeman's reteUing, however, the initial submission, which begins with
acceptance and sympathy for the father, quickly turns to something else. "Poor Papa," she
thinks at first, but then she begins to question: "But whose idea was this? What kind of vow
was more important than her life?" Then, she begins to rage: "A column of fire cut a swath
through her heart as she realized the trick. Whose pain to feel sorry about? Her father's or hers?
Whose wounds? Whose trouble? 'Mine,' she thought. 'Not his!.... It is my pain, my wound, my
life that was quenched. . .not his, mine!"'*^ She rages not only at her father, but also at the silent
God to whom she challenges in her anger: "Why are you silent? Can you not hear? Or are you
a father just Hke my father? Betrayer!""*^
Brakeman's midrash transforms Jephthah' s daughter from obedient daughter and
submissive victim to a young woman with a voice that challenges her fate. Although she does
not have the power to change her destiny, she at least asserts her power to question it.
Moreover, she summons the courage to challenge even God, who appears to be silently
acquiescent in Jephthah' s intention to carry out his vow. The midrash on the biblical story gives
us permission to protest unnecessary martyrdom
""^ Brakeman, Spiritual Lemons, 49.
^^ Ibid., 50.
In Brakeman's version, when Jephthah's daughter goes to the mountains with her
companions to mourn her virginity, the women offer their own take on the situation, "Women
are always sacrificed to solve the problems of men." Moreover, the "mourning" of the
virginity is not a lamenting, but the women dancing and expressing their sexuality together.
Finally, Jephthah's daughter dances her rage before the silent God. At last, Adonai speaks to
her: "Your word is now incorporated into my Word, and I will make your raging dance flesh in
many women. . .Never forget your name, O Woman. Remembering is resistance. . . and Hfe."
Brakeman's invention has ventured far from the Biblical text, but in its conclusion, it may
capture the essence of the end of the story, for Jephthah's daughter is immortalized in a
ceremony conducted by women: "And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel
went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days of the year" (1 1 .39-
40). Phyllis Trible adds a touching postscript in her own exegesis of the story: "In her death we
are all diminished; by our memory she is forever hallowed. ""^^
Job's Wife: A Courageous One-Liner
In the Hebrew Scripture, there is one woman who does voice her anger against God in the
text. Although Job's wife gets only a one-liner, she does not need a twentieth century author to
create a midrash that rewrites her dialogue. After Job has lost everything - livestock, children,
and even health and his status as a "clean" member of the Jewish cult, due to his skin disease -
his wife enunciates the pithy and natural response to his circumstances: "Do you still hold fast
your integrity? Curse God, and die" (Job 2.9). Although Job chides her, "You speak as one of
^^ Ibid., 50.
"** Brakeman, 52.
''^ Trible, Texts of Terror, 108.
the foolish women would speak" (2.10), her words allow him to express his misery: "Let the day
perish wherein I was born" (3.3). While Job's three friends offer him lengthy platitudes about
the reasons for his suffering, his wife's response is simple, honest, and direct. In her essay,
which paints Job and his friends as clowns, Elizabeth Swados describes Eliphaz as the "fix-it
clown"^^ who counsels Job that God really loves those he causes to suffer; Eliphaz is one of
those folks who believes that suffering makes us better people. Bildad tells Job that his
children's death may be the result of their sinning against God. This is about as comforting to a
parent as someone asking the parent of a teen killed in a car crash, "Was drinking involved?"
Zophar blames Job himself for having done something wrong, the equivalent of telling the lung
cancer patient that those cigarettes she smoked during her college days, but gave up, have caused
her disease and therefore, she is not entitled to any sympathy. Elihu says that Job simply doesn't
understand God's ways, an echo of those people always talking about bad things being part of
some mysterious component of "God's plan for us." All of these so-called friends offer Job
some of the well-meaning, but useless and even painful advice that is often offered to those who
suffer; frequently, this type of "support" is even offered by clergy. Job's wife may be a "shrew
clown," but she does not mess around with offering futile explanations encased in long
speeches. Life sucks: "Curse God and die."
Job is a book that allows us to examine the dimensions of human anger at God. Job is
portrayed as "cursing the day he was born, though he stops short of cursing his Creator. This is
what his wife urges him to do in a passage as ironic as it is poignant. 'Curse God and die,' she
Elizabeth Swados, "Job; He's a Clown," in Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, ed. Christina
Buchman and Celina Spiegel (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994), 211.
^' Ibid. 208.
says, hoping to cut short her husbands misery." Job's wife's reaction prompts Job's own
question in response: "Shall we received good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive
evil?" (Job 2.10) Garret Keizer turns this question around: "Should we praise God for all the
blessings of our lives and not complain to him about the bad?" Only Job and his wife have the
courage to strip away the patronizing chches about suffering and be real with God.
In her essay "Job's Wife: Healing by Expressing Anger," Vanessa Ochs portrays Job's
wife as giving Job the freedom to express his own sorrow, despair, and even anger. Ochs creates
a midrash in which Job and his wife have a dialogue:
"I will not curse God," he said.
"Curse with God, Job, as I have done. Curse along with God. Could God
not also curse the fate that has befallen us?"
Job unleashed his anger. He lashed out at God, at life. His wife waited at
a distance as he raged. If God could hear these new words and respond. Job
might return to her and to the land of the living.'*'^
Ochs sees Job's wife as offering Job freedom and healing: "Job's wife leads her husband
to challenge God and talk back when he is ready to do so." ^ Job's wife, in her abrupt honesty,
not only gives Job that freedom, she also offers it to us: "She wants us to know that if we can
curse when our defenses are down, then we can also recognize that when we chose to, we can tell
God we have a bone to pick." For Ochs, expressing our anger to God, as Job's wife does,
Keizer, The Enigma of Anger : Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin, 268.
" Ibid., 268.
Vanessa L. Ochs, Sarah Laughed : Modern Lessons from the Wisdom & Stories of Biblical Women (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 2005), 157.
" Ibid., 160.
^^ Ibid., 164.
allows honest and open communication with God, and can even have liberating and healing
Jezebel: Villain or Hero of the Wrong Side?
Jezebel is another woman whose anger is not silenced, but she is viewed as the
personification of female evil. But how evil is Jezebel, really? Jezebel is a foreigner, daughter
of the king of Sidonians, and when she marries Ahab, she encourages Ahab to worship her god,
Baal (1 Kings 16.31). The cult of Baal also involves female figure Asherah, as well as fertility
rites. So, Jezebel and Elijah wage a battle over whose god is the right one. First Kings 18.13
mentions that she killed the prophets of the Lord, and Elijah had to hide a hundred prophets in a
cave to escape from her. Elijah avenges the death of Yahweh's prophets by assembling four
hundred fifty prophets of Baal in a cave and slaughtering them. Clearly, the prophet and the
queen are engaged in a religious war and a battle of wills. According to Ahce Bellis, "Mutual
tolerance is not a possibility for either of them. Both are committed to a battle to the death.
Although we may prefer Elijah's God to Jezebel's, Elijah and Jezebel use the same means to
accomplish their identical ends. Both are intent on wiping out the other's rehgion." Is Jezebel
a wicked woman, or a woman from a different culture trying to maintain her own religion and
cultural identity? Is Jezebel the alien and foreigner who is labeled as the other, or the evil
colonizing imperialist presented as a woman?
Jezebel engages in power struggles throughout the text, and mainly keeps the upper hand,
even over the King Ahab, her husband. Jezebel plots to obtain for Ahab the vineyard belonging
to Naboth. Ahab offers to buy Naboth's vineyard, but when Naboth refuses to sell it to him,
Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, 165.
Ahab goes off in a sulk. Jezebel chides Ahab for his lack of initiative: "Do you now govern
Israel?" ( 1 Kg 21.7) Jezebel takes matters into her own hands, forging Ahab's names on letters
so that Naboth will be charged and executed for blasphemy and treason. When the work is
completed, Jezebel commands her husband, "Arise, take possession of the vineyard" (1 Kg.
21.15). This is an evil plot indeed, but as BelHs points out, Jezebel is not the only person in
Scripture who has manipulated someone's death for gain: "Although this story is not pretty, it is
no worse than what David does to Uriah when Bathsheba becomes pregnant. Jezebel is not a
model of morality, but she does not deserve to be the symbol of evil that she has become." The
perception of her evil may be wrapped up in her power over Ahab: "There was none who sold
himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord like Ahab, whom Jezebel his wife incited."
(1 Kg. 21 .25) It is not merely that Jezebel does evil, but that she exerts the power in the
household; as the Book of Sirach warns about women who control their husbands, "There is
wrath and impudence and great disgrace when a wife supports her husband. A dejected mind, a
gloomy face, and a wounded heart are caused by an evil wife." (Sir. 25.22-23)
Although "Jezebel" has become a synonym for a sexual temptress, except for the scene of
Jezebel's death, when she bejewels herself and applies make-up, the Bible says nothing about her
sexuality: "Jezebel is popularly thought of as a whore, but nothing in her story suggests that this
was her sin." Jezebel, the angry woman who kills prophets, and in her impatience, takes charge
of her husband's affairs, is a dangerous figure because of the reversals of power structure she
represents; later misperceptions of her as a harlot disempower her. In fact, one source suggests
that Jezebel's adorning herself when she appears at the window before her death suggests not
^** Bellis, 165.
^^ Ibid., 165.
sexuality, but assertion of her power as a monarch: "If she is to have any hope at all of rallying
people behind her, she must appear in all the glory of her queenship. Indeed, a modern reader
would not think twice to read of a man in her position putting on his most regal robes and
The application of the name Jezebel has also come to have racial connotations. Emilie
M. Townes describes the black Jezebel as the flip side of the asexualized Mammy.: "Jezebel was
depicted as licentious and dangerous for White men. The stereotype fortified the perception that
Black women were sexually loose and liked sex more than their white counterparts. In
contemporary discourse, Jezebel has morphed into the Welfare Queen." Since the Biblical
Jezebel is essentially the Other in the kingdom of Israel, an interloper from another country,
applying her as a negative image pertaining to strong and sexual black woman would make
perfect sense in the dominant white culture of post-Civil War America. It is also useful to point
out that the description of the angry wife has language that could be applied to race: "The
wickedness of a wife changes her appearance, and darkens her face like that of a bear" (Sir.
25.17). Although the original biblical context probably did not apply to race, the root metaphor
of Jezebel and the domineering wife has "morphed" through what Townes calls the "cultural
production of evil" into the racial stereotype of Jezebel/Sapphire, whose power is subversive,
frightening, and even emasculating: "The image of the bitter, hostile, cold, and domineering
Black woman who is in-charge is dangerous for the White imagination. Whites had no 'safe'
place to put a Black woman ...who did not relate to white culture... keeping everyone (men
Claudia Camp cited in Ibid., 166.
Emilie Maureen Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
2006), 31 and 171 n.
included) in line... she had to be demonized to fit the worlds of blackness the White imagination
sought to create."
Phyllis Trible, in her essay, "The Odd Couple: Elijah and Jezebel," recognizes Jezebel as
Elijah's equal in a power struggle. Both exert power in their separate spheres: "Remaining
apart, they dominate their respective scenes as they exercise authority on behalf of others.
Jezebel writes letters in the name of Ahab; Elijah speaks in the name of the Lord." But both
spheres are dominated by wrath and violence: "Violence characterizes their stances. She
acquires the vineyard through the murder of one man Naboth. He announces for revenge the
annihilation of Ahab's entire dynasty as well as the horrendous death of Jezebel." According
to Trible, if the Bible story were written from the Phoenician perspective, rather than that of
Israel, the view of Elijah and Jezebel would be different:
It would censure Elijah for murdering prophets, for imposing his theology
on the kingdom, for inciting kings to do his bidding. ..By the same token Jezebel
would be held in high esteem for remaining faithful to her religious convictions,
for upholding the prerogatives of royalty, for supporting her husband and
children, and for opposing her enemies even unto death. ^^
Whether a narrative depicts the image of an angry, scheming woman and a national hero
enacting righteous wrath depends on which side is telling the story. In any case, the
narrative concludes by trying to eradicate Jezebel's identity through her death. When Jezebel is
cast down from the window, she is no longer Queen Jezebel, but is identified by one of the
males associated with her, her father: "See now to this cursed woman, and bury her; for she is a
king's daughter" (2 Kg. 9.34). According to Phyllis Trible, "As in the beginning, so in the end
^^ Ibid., 62-63.
^^ Phyllis Trible, "'The Odd Couple: Elijah and Jezebel," in Out of the Garden, 174-175.
^^ Ibid., 178-179.
she remains captive to male power." When the people go out to bury Jezebel, however, there is
nothing left except for her skull and the palms of her hands; she has been eradicated: "For
Jezebel the vocabulary of disgrace knows no bounds. She disappears without a trace."
Not quite. . .the name Jezebel still remains a synonym for feminine power, even if that
power is evil. Categorizing her as a whore, despite the lack of textual evidence for that
stereotype, is one way of disempowering this angry and scheming woman. Another way of
"dethroning" her is through popular culture. I encountered Jezebel through an old Bette Davis
movie by that title that I first watched on TV as a teen-ager. Bette was one of my favorite
actors, one of the most powerful and independent women of Hollywood's "golden era," and so I
anticipated watching a film starring her that featured this enticing title. The experience was
rather disappointing. This Jezebel, a spoiled Southern belle, shocks her fiancee and Southern
society by such acts of rebellion as walking into male domains of power, such as banks and
businesses, by accepting the attentions of more than one man, and by wearing a red gown to a
debutante ball where white is the appropriate attire. The film concludes with her falling to her
knees and begging her fiancee's forgiveness for her bad behavior only to learn that he has
married someone else. When he contracts yellow fever, she makes the choice to go with him to
the leper colony where he is quarantined, thus sacrificing her health and perhaps even her life.
The power and anger are defused as this Jezebel apologizes, does penance, and eventually
departs, possibly to face illness and death herself in a gesture of martyrdom and self-sacrifice.
Here is a Jezebel weakened and "whitewashed" in many respects. Of course, the story also
^^ Ibid. 177.
^^ Ibid. 178.
features the ubiquitous black Mammy; in 1938, a black Jezebel might be really frightening.
Again, the story that gets told depends on who is writing the "script."
Judith: A Postcolonial Hero?
Another Biblical woman who is fearsome in her anger is Judith, whose story appears in
the Apocrypha, but Judith is a Biblical hero, rather than a villain. Like Jezebel, who becomes
impatient with her husband's inability to act, Judith also takes the male leadership of Israel to
task for its weakness of will, and Judith also resembles that queen in her lack of hesitation in
employing violence to achieve her ends. While modern-day audiences may view this aspect of
the Judith story as problematic, when viewed alongside male Biblical heroes like Joshua and
David, or compared to the Greek heroic tradition, Judith's story does not appear more
bloodthirsty than others within the similar historical contexts. In fact, Alice Bellis calls her "a
female version of a more recent Hebrew hero, Judas Maccabeus." Despite Judith's adoption
of violence as her modus operandi, many women embrace her as a hero. "Judith is a new kind of
woman. She is independent, in need of no male protector. She uses both traditional feminine
wiles as well as more masculine strategies." Judith can be seen as being a valuable model
from a variety of perspectives, as a resistor to both patriarchy and imperialism, according to
Musa Dube: "As a decolonizing woman, Judith has a lot to offer the feminist discourse of
liberation in biblical studies. Judith is a woman we need in our feminist discourse, for she
summons us to resist imperialism and its collaborators in our own worlds. "^^
Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, 221.
^* Ibid., 221.
Musa Dube, "Rahab Says Hello to Judith : A Decolonizing Feminist Reading," in The Postcolonial Biblical
Reader, ed. R.S. Sugirtharajah (Maiden, Mass. ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2006), 153.
The story of Judith appears to be a historical narrative, but the tale has much that is
anachronistic, and it appears that the narrator is not overly obsessed with historical accuracy:
"The narrative interweaves different historical events, places, and people without observing their
correct date and setting. The narrative also creates new places and characters that cannot be
identified with any historical persons or events." The story allegedly takes place when
Nebuchadnezzar ruled Assyria, but that king actually ruled Babylon in an earlier period, and the
general, Holofernes is Persian, rather than Babylonian. In fact, Bethulia may not even have
existed.^' Alice Bellis clearly states that the book is "historical fiction" and that Bethulia is a
"fictional Israelite town."
In the story, Holofornes and his army surround Bethulia and seize the town's water
supply. As the ordeal goes on and the people of the town begin to suffer from the lack of water,
Uzziah and the other city rulers decide to hold out five more days, and if God does not rescue
them, the town will surrender to Holofernes. The mood is grim: "They were greatly depressed
in the city" (Judith 8.32). At this point, Judith appears. She is a beautiful widow of some means,
"an unusual combination in Hebrew society. Her wealth indicates that she is a wise manager,
like the 'good wife' praised in Proverbs 31. However, she is also an independent woman."^^
Like Jezebel, Judith has no problem with expressing outrage at weaker male authority figures:
"Who are you, that have put God to the test this day, and are setting yourselves up in the place of
God among the sons of men? You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test — but you will never
know anything!" (Judith 8.12-13) She sees their stated reliance on the mercy of God not as faith,
^° Ibid. 145.
^' Ibid., 145-146.
Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, 219.
^^ Ibid., 220.
but as an excuse for passivity in a situation of oppression and injustice. Judith is angry, but this
is not bhnd rage, but focused and directed anger, articulately expressed. Musa Dube sees Judith
as a decolonizing hero:
As a woman, Judith demonstrates unwavering anger against imperialist structures
that have condemned her people and her land to gross injustice, facing either the
surrender of all human dignity or death. While she is no commander of massive
armies but a widow who holds no particular social power, save for her impeccable
reputation of wisdom, beauty, and piety, Judith will not condone the injustice of
imperialism, the arrogance of such a powerful nation as Assyria. ^'^
Judith decides to take matters in her own hands, but she prepares herself for her task with
prayer. She brings to God lamentations over the injustice of the oppressors and appeals to the
God of justice to bring her strength and wisdom in this venture. The first words of her prayer
seek justice, in particular, for those women who were victims of rape: "O Lord God of my
father... to whom you gave a sword to take revenge on the strangers who had loosed the girdle of
a virgin to defile her, and uncovered her thigh to put her to shame, and polluted her womb to
disgrace her; for thou hast said, 'It shall not be done' — yet they did it" (Judith 9.2). She
addresses God specifically as the protector and defender of the poor and oppressed; "Thou art
God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forlorn, savior
of those without hope" (Judith 9.11). Here is a passionate woman, filled with holy anger on
behalf of victims of sexual and imperialist injustice. It is not surprising that many women have
embraced her as their hero, as Judith takes an action to avenge those who have been violated and
oppressed, to liberate her oppressed townspeople, and to prevent future violations and violence.
^^ Dube, "Rahab Says Hello to Judith," 152.
After spending time in prayer, she adorns herself, and taking her maidservant, she goes
out of the city to the camp of the Assyrians. Under the guise of fleeing the Hebrews, Judith
flatters Holofernes and stays with him for three days, beguiling him and impressing the
Assyrians in general, but at the same time, remaining ritually pure by eating her own food and
remaining morally pure by maintaining her chastity. On the fourth evening, she lies down and
drinks with Holofernes, who desires to possess her, but he becomes so overcome by wine that he
falls asleep. Judith kills him and cuts off his head and then gives the head to her maid, and the
two women leave the camp, carrying his head in their food bag.
When she returns to the city and shows the leaders and the people what she has done,
they celebrate, "and she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women, while all
the men of Israel followed, bearing their arms and wearing garlands and with songs on their lips"
(Judith 15.18). Judith's reputation remains high, and many men propose to her, but she remains
single. She frees her maidservant, and at her death, she distributes her property to those who are
next of kin to her husband, Manasseh.
Diverse groups admire the character Judith for their own set of diverse reasons: "The
church fathers were impressed with her chastity, but modern feminists are impressed with Judith
for different reasons. Patricia Montley sees Judith as the archetypal androgyne. She combines
elements of the soldier and the seductress, which are culturally defined in the West as masculine
and feminine. "^^ However, this unquestioningly positive interpretation of Judith asks for further
Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, 221.
One aspect of the Judith story that is disturbing is her use of violence. Judith does
respond to violence with violence: "Judith has sometimes been condemned for her deception
and murder."^^ Some might also criticize the Judith for adopting the male norm of the warrior to
achieve her purpose. However, one must also look at the cultural context in which the narrative
is written, a context in which a defenseless city is besieged and starved out by a conquering
nation: "How anyone can criticize her for using these tools to save her people from
extermination is hard to understand." It might be argued that Judith tempers her anger with
reason; she comes up with a plan that destroys only one person and saves many. Judith is not
going through entire enemy fortresses and villages, killing and pillaging in a "surge" that would
cost Israeli and enemy lives; she has targeted the individual who has the power to do the most
damage. A modern parallel might be the plot by the German resistance to kill Adolph Hitler, in
which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was implicated. Her story does raise the question of whether
violence is ever an acceptable solution, even in extreme circumstances, but no more so than other
Biblical stories that include even more violence.
The second element that arouses question is one that Musa Dube examines in her
postcolonial interpretation of the story: "Can the character of Judith serve as a decolonizing
feminist figure - one who resists both forms of oppression, patriarchy and imperialism, in her
struggle for liberation?" Dube's position is that Judith clearly serves as a decolonizing figure:
"Judith is a woman we need in our feminist discourse, for she summons us to resist imperialism
^^ Ibid., 221.
^^ Ibid., 220.
^^ Dube, "Rahab Says Hello to Judith", 151.
and its collaborators in our own worlds. "^^ However, in Dube's opinion, the interpretation of
Judith as a depatriarchalizing figure calls for further examination. Dube expresses
disappointment that after the victory, Judith, rather than taking the struggle further "to insist on
showing her leadership skills within the institutions of her nation and to show that God does not
discriminate against women... she withdraws from the pubhc sphere to the silence and privacy of
her home." Dube does not see Judith's rejecting her suitors as maintaining her independence
because "she is not without a man in her life - she is with Manasseh" because Judith ends up
being buried with Manasseh. Moreover, when Judith dies, her property is distributed to
Manasseh, her husband's kin. Dube sees Judith as continuing to work within the framework of
patriarchy. By retiring rather than continuing in the liberative struggle, "our dear Judith closely
resembles those Two-Thirds World women who participated in the wars of liberation but who
were discouraged from the waging the feminist struggle for liberation."
However, another source, Toni Craven, interprets Judith as an example of the faithful and
prayerful person who places absolute trust in God and who acts courageously within her faith
tradition. That Judith returns to a private and prayerful existence is not inconsistent with the
character as portrayed throughout the story. "Since most of her life is devoted to private
religious observances, the community finds in her not a permanent leader, but rather a model of
how to acquire permanent freedom." Judith's role is to save the town and become an
exemplum of faith and trust, not to ascend to a position of political power.
^^ Ibid. 153.
**" Ibid. 153.
**' Ibid., 154.
Toni Craven, "Tradition and Convention in the Book of Judith," in Feminist Theology: A Reader, ed. Ann Loades
(London; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 39.
Perhaps to Dube and to other feminists, the story of Judith does not go far enough in
questioning patriarchy. However, Judith offers rich material for women to work into their own
stories in ways that are creative and liberative because she is one of the few examples of a
woman combining anger and wisdom to overcome a situation of injustice and oppression.
As mentioned earlier, the story of Judith is fiction, despite its attempt at presenting an
allegedly historical situation, and another fictional character, Lucy, in Alan Gurganus' Oldest
Living Confederate Widow Tells All, is illustrative of a woman finding within this story the seeds
of her own liberation. Lucy, the young mother of nine children, is married to an aging veteran of
the Civil War, a man whose inability to let go of the violence and tragedies of that war, has made
the marriage difficult and at times, even abusive. Lucy is asked by her church to teach a Sunday
school lesson, and the text for the lesson happens to be the story of Judith. Lucy pours all her
energies into creating puppets for the lesson from pipe cleaners and fabric remnants, producing a
literal "Punch and Judy" show, but in the process of creating the characters for the story, she
finds that she is also telling her own story: "Next week's text was where: Judith cuts off the
head of her people's worst warrior-enemy, a man she might' ve come to love. That, plus her
getting him drunk and cutting his block off, was their tragedy." As she becomes completely
absorbed in creating her puppets, she experiences a sense of power. First, she creates Judith
using a green velveteen remnant from her daughter's dress; then she creates Holofernes,
reversing the Biblical creation story:
From the same supplies, I made a Man one... I'd chose to think that the Lady was
my first and that he come after. I'd made Man from her ribbing starter culture. I
could. I could do anything I liked. I was the boss in here today... I soon felt
Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells all, Istd ed. (New York: Knopf, 1989), 522.
powerful as Eden's single landlord and subcontractor. Like Adam, I got to name
stuff, a caretaker's tender joy.
In Lucy's creation, she recognizes herself and her husband in the characters. She plans
carefully how to construct the beheading of the puppet and even uses a bloodied scrap of her
husband's shirt for Holofernes: "Holofernes was a older man who snored nights, a meat eater
and sound sleeper after a day of war's bloodshed, then red beef."
The show is a success with the children, but the final affirmation comes at the end of the
day, when her daughter, Louisa, models the dress made from the same material as the Judy
puppet, and the rest of the children admire her. In that moment, Lucy realizes that her daughter
is expressing admiration for her mother's creativity and initiative, as well as for the character of
Judith: "Imagine, she'd put that dress on because, earlier today, my pipe-cleaner Judith had wore
that selfsame color. For a minute and a half, Lou felt famous. I hadn't got a compliment like
that since 18 and 96."^^
In reading the stories of women in the Bible, it is easy to see why women's anger is a
problematic issue in Jewish and Christian tradition. In many of these stories, anger is the
unwritten part of the story. Some of the women, such as Tamar, the Levite's concubine, and
Jephthah's daughter, have good cause for anger, but it is the men who sin against them who have
the prerogative of expressing that anger. In each case, the male perpetrators are angry at those
against whom they have committed violence, while the women's voices are either silent or
^^ Ibid., 523.
^^ Ibid., 524.
^^ Ibid., 527.
unheeded. In the case of the Levite's concubine, the impHcation is that she may have either
deserted her husband in anger or transgressed in some other way at the beginning of the story,
thus providing the impetus for a tale of silencing, violation, and annihilation. Expressing anger
and upsetting the social order can result in a death sentence, whether one is a concubine, or like
Jezebel, a queen.
Through the skillful reading of feminist theologians like Phyllis Trible, Carol Saussy,
Alice Bellis, and others, we are given the gift of being able to "read between the lines" in the
stories of biblical women so that we have a fuller picture of their reality. Some writers, like
Vanessa Ochs and Lynne Brakeman, provide us with midrash, which enable us to reimagine
these stories and bring out the unheard voices. Ochs spins a dialogue between Job and his wife
from his wife's one-liner, a dialogue that hberates us to pray our authentic emotions to God.
Lynn Brakeman 's midrash presents Jephthah's daughter as a three-dimensional character capable
of voicing anger at her fate, rather than as a passive martyr. To "make peace" with some of
these Biblical stories, often women must read them creatively, rather than literally.
When biblical women are explicitly angry, like the males in the stories, they, too, can be
asserting their positions of power and privilege. Sarah has the privilege of expressing anger
against her servant, Hagar, and uses that privilege abusively. However, Sarah is a bitter woman,
with her own emotional wounds, whose anger is also expressing her insecurity about her own
vulnerable position as the barren wife. Jezebel, in her battle of wills with Elijah, also exercises
anger in the abuse of power, and her name has become synonymous with the demonization of
female power. Yet, if Jezebel were not an alien, but a male on the "right side," the side of Israel,
would her anger be perceived as heroic, rather than as dangerous or demonic?
Only Judith is able to express "holy anger" and channel that energy into positive action.
Whatever Judith's failings as a "depatriarchalizing figure," however disturbing the apparent
glorification of her violent act, Judith's is a story in which a woman can place herself, a story
that she can "play" with, experience feelings of righteous anger, explore whether anger can go
too far, and discover where anger tempered with wisdom can lead. This apocryphal tale in the
margins of the Bible is where a woman can come to experiment.
In examining the role of women's anger in Hebrew Scripture, most of us find ourselves
walking on uncomfortable and at times, dangerous ground. To step into the shoes of Sarah, the
bitter and angry woman who receives God's promises too late in life, is to step into the shoes of
the victimized victimizer. To live with Tamar is to live in a house of brothers, a house in which
your voice, regardless of how wise, is never heeded, a house where someone gets angry at you
because he behaved violently and criminally. To travel with the concubine, who left in anger but
was persuaded by "kind words" to return, is to ride the back of a donkey to death and
dismemberment. To be Jephthah's daughter, another woman must rewrite the story so that we
can hear the daughter's voice and watch her dance the dance of anger. To be Job's wife is to
witness suffering, but be restricted to one line amidst the pretentious prattlings of false friends.
To become Jezebel might bring power, but also danger and rejection of the alien; the price of the
foreigner asserting herself might be getting thrown to the dogs. These are not shoes or situations
that any of us would like to "try on." Judith's ending her days in quiet and relative solitude may
be a "cop out," but Judith chooses a peaceful life until the end of her days; none of these other
women are that fortunate. In fact, some of them suffer violent deaths that they have not chosen.
Moreover, unlike a later biblical figure, Jesus Christ, their deaths are tragedies, empty sacrifices
to the powers that have victimized them.
BUT JESUS GOT MAD -THE NEW TESTAMENT
Supporting Roles and the Lead Character
The New Testament depicts only a few women, and their roles are "supporting ones":
Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the witness to the resurrection, and the many
women mentioned in Acts and the epistles who supported the early church. Although the stories
of Mary the Mother of Jesus have been used to illustrate a number of virtues - submissiveness,
faithfulness, trust - we do not see her displaying any difficult or negative emotions. Women in
the Christian tradition, particularly the Roman Catholic tradition, have been taught to model
themselves on Mary, and her example has had both positive and negative ramifications. Mary's
obedience to the will of God has been interpreted as passive submission, but her proclaiming the
Magnificat has been a source of the liberating message of God reversing the order of the
powerful and the lowly. Mary Magdalene has also been used as a model. She is the witness to
the resurrection, and perhaps even a prophet, if she is indeed the Mary who anointed Jesus with
oil and her tears at the banquet before his death. But tradition has also made her the model of the
repentant sinner by identifying that Mary as the woman in several of the stories of repenting
sinful women in the Gospels, even though the evidence linking her to those stories is slim to
nonexistent. In any case, neither Mary, the Mother of God, nor Mary Magdalene provide any
material about dealing with anger.
The one woman in the Gospel who expresses some semblance of anger is Martha in the
story of Mary and Martha in Luke's gospel. As Mary sits by Jesus' feet, listening to his
teaching, Martha bustles about, "distracted" with preparing and serving the meal. Martha asks
with annoyance, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then
to help me" (Luke 10.40). Her behavior and her annoyance is familiar to many women in
family or social roles who end up doing most of the preparation for events, yet end up feeling
resentful. Jesus chides her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things."
His response could be seen as either compassionate, asking her to stop worrying, put that dish
down, and enjoy the company, or judgmental of her for not being more concerned about the
"better part" on which Mary is focused. Whatever Jesus' response, Martha's attitude comes
across as peevish and petty. The moral of the story is that the focus should be on the guest, not
Martha, and the guest is Jesus. This is the point not only of this story, but also of the gospel
itself; Jesus should be the center of our attention. In fact, unlike the Hebrew Scriptures, with its
parade of characters - the many men and women of salvation history, the New Testament is
focused on one central character - Jesus. He is the protagonist, and the gospels are his story.
Jesus' actions, his character, his behavior, his teachings are to serve as the penultimate model for
Christian moral behavior. Jesus, the fully divine, is also the fully human, and as someone fully
human, he experienced and expressed the full range of human emotions. Jesus wept over the
death of his friend, Lazarus, or over the fate of Jerusalem, but Jesus also got angry and did not
hesitate to express that anger. Therefore, can't we examine the stories in which Jesus exhibits
anger to enable us to understand and utihze our own anger more effectively? The logical answer
to this question seems to be "Yes," but for many women, the male Jesus as the model for
behavior can be problematic.
Who Do You Say That I Am?
Some women, in order to be able to put themselves into Jesus' story, must
overcome a significant obstacle - their own anger over a Christology that has emphasized Jesus'
maleness at the expense of his life and his teachings. Mary Daly, that great angry woman of
feminism, is not the only one who ended up discarding the baby (or more aptly, the crucified and
triumphal) male Christ with the bathwater of the patriarchal and hierarchal Roman Catholic
Church. Carol Saussy found in her association with Women-Church that some women "no
longer expressed faith in God through faith in Jesus Christ and that neither Christology nor the
Bible held great interest for them... Many had been and some still are affiliated with Roman
Catholic religious orders."^ Saussy found herself among the minority in the group, one of the
few women who was still a professing Christian. For many women, Jesus' maleness has gotten
in the way of their being able to see him as a model, or for that matter, even feel close to him.
"Because the maleness of Jesus has been used by some denominations to exclude women from
full partnership in the work of the church, many women have painfully walked away, often full
of anger and sadness."^
Saussy, motivated by a "renewed interest in Christology and, especially through [her]
research on anger, a fresh motivation to read and pray the Gospels and the psalms of lament"
Carroll Saussy, The Gift of Anger : A Call to Faithfiil Action, Istd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox
Press, 1995), 81.
^ Ibid., 86.
^ Ibid., 81.
was able to "redeem" the misplaced emphasis on Jesus' masculinity through a dream which
creates her own story of Jesus, a dialogue between Jesus and some of his women followers.
Like Lynn Brakeman's retelling of the story of Japheth's daughter, Saussy's dream allows her
imagination to explore women's conversations with God, in this case, an interchange between
Jesus and some women by the river's edge. Jesus expresses to these women his sadness: "I have
been thinking of you all morning, and your conversation increases my concern. What saddens
me is the fear that one day you will question whether you can follow me. You will feel the need
to walk away from the community because I am a man." When the women ask him what he
means, he explains, "I'm afraid that men will use the fact that I am a man to perpetuate power
over you. They will not accept the leadership of women."'* In the dialogue, Jesus is almost
apologetic for not being able to be around long enough to effect real change in societal attitudes
toward women, in perhaps losing some of those who could be his best followers.
For Saussy, documenting this dream helped her to see Jesus as present in women's
struggle within churches that continue to exclude women from leadership positions:
The dream brought home to me that my faith in the Jesus movement lives; it also
brought home the sadness and loss I feel when I am among women who no longer
call themselves Christian. The dream gave me a glimpse of the anger the risen
Christ must experience at the profound injustice toward women that has been
perpetrated in the churches founded in God's name simply because Jesus was
Saussy noted that she wrote down her dream dialogue with Jesus "the week after Pope
John Paul II's ...proclamation, a reiteration of many of his statements, that there will never be
women priests in the Roman Catholic Church, a decision he bases on the fact that Jesus called
^ Ibid., 83.
^ Ibid., 84.
only male disciples." This proclamation, Ordinacio Sacerdotalis, asserts that "In calling only
men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner," (italics mine) and
that therefore, the Church has no authority to ordain women. This papal pronouncement was
followed up with then Cardinal John Ratzinger's Responsum ad Dubium Concerning the
Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which stated that this teaching "has been set forth
infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium" and therefore "is to be held always,
everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of faith. "^ In other words, one must believe
that the priesthood is open only to males to be considered faithful to Roman Catholic teaching.
It is an ironic coincidence that Saussy's creation of a dialogue between Christ and women
occurred roughly at the same time as these proclamations. In my own story, the proclamation
and the October follow-up by Cardinal Ratzinger were the "last straws," finally motivating me to
initiate my own long-contemplated break with the Roman Catholic Church and to search for a
denomination where women could be accepted as full participants in every aspect of worship.
How many other women were ultimately driven away from a faith that they cherished by this
authoritarian focus on Christ's maleness, rather than on individual gifts and calls to ministry?
The fears and concerns that Christ had confided to the women by the river in Saussy's dream-
story have been embedded in Christian tradition, and still continue to be affirmed by institutional
structures and language. Is it any wonder that many women are angry, and that some of that
^ Ibid., 84.
"Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" in Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Available from
http://www.vatican.va/holy father/john paul ii/apost letters/documents/hf jp-ii apl 22051994 ordinatio-
sacerdotalis en.html (accessed February 2008).
"Responsum Ad Dubium Cocnerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis ," in Eternal World
Television Network. Irondale, Alabama. Available from http://www.ewtn.com/librarv/CURIA/CDFRESPQ.HTM
(accessed February 2008).
anger is even directed at Jesus, as his maleness apparently takes precedence over his message
and his hfe?
The heart of the problem lies in the question that Jesus asks of Peter in Mark's gospel:
"Who do you say that I am?" Is Jesus just a human image of a male god to be worshipped, or is
Jesus our spiritual companion and guide, who lives and suffers in solidarity with us? 1 remember
confiding to a close friend, Cynthia, who was also a Christian feminist, that I had trouble feeling
close to Jesus because he was a man. Cynthia had no such trouble because as a child, her
Sunday school teacher told stories about Jesus learning his Hebrew letters and studying Torah,
just as she and the other children learned their ABCs and read Bible stories. By putting Jesus in
this way into her own childhood stories, Jesus could be a playmate, a companion, a brother.
Carter Heyward voices a more adult theology of Jesus traveling with her in many guises:
No question JESUS walks with me, hand in hand, along the path I take
today: dark prophetic brother from Nazareth; depressed sister from Chester,
South Carolina, who tells me she hates being a lesbian; nephew Robert turning
twelve today; my friends Margaret Moshoeshoe Montjane from Soweto and
Dorothee Soelle from Hamburg and Oh Dong Kyun from Seoul - you are JESUS,
The key to understanding who Jesus is appears to be in placing Jesus within one's own
story. According to Korean theologian, Chun Hyun Kyung, for many Asian women, Jesus is
such an integral part of their stories that "Jesus is the one we rehve through our lives. "^^ Jesus
has many roles: liberator, revolutionary, political martyr; women such as Filipino women
opposing colonialism and military dictatorships, see Jesus' struggle mirrored in their own
Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus from those Who are Right: Rethinking what it Means to be Christian (Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 1999), 33.
'" Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to be the Sun again: Introducing Asian Women's Theology (MaryknoU, N.Y.: Orbis
Books, 1990), 61.
struggles for justice: "Filipino women find Christ's suffering, death and resurrection in the
suffering death, and resurrection of Filipino women themselves."'' Asian women also image
Jesus as mother: "Like a mother who laments over her dead son who died in the wars in
Indochina, like many weeping Korean mothers whose sons and daughters were taken by the
secret police, Jesus cried out for the pain and suffering of humanity."'^ By taking Jesus into their
own personal and historical situations, Asian women have created a theology that transcends the
image of Jesus with a male body. Chung describes the presentation of Park Soon Kyung on
Christology at the Korean Association of Women Theologians: ". . .even though Jesus has a male
physical form, he is a 'symbol of females and the oppressed' due to his identification with the
one who hurts the most. Therefore, on a symbolic level, we may call Jesus the 'woman Messiah'
who is the liberator of the oppressed."
Moreover, for Korean women, Jesus is the healer of han, an internalized anger
experienced especially by those suffering from oppression. Grace Ji-Sum describes han in the
Korean experience: "Korea, through its experience of invasion and colonialism, has become a
land of spirits full of han. Han is broken heartedness but also the raw energy for the struggle for
liberation."'"^ For Korean women, Jesus can be "a Korean woman shaman priest who releases
their han. " For Korean-North American women, Kim also sees Jesus as the image of Grace-
Sophia, who gives "the strength to confront the sins and injustices of others, within and outside
" Ibid., 63.
'^ Ibid., 64.
^^ Ibid., 65.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim, The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women's Christology (Cleveland, Ohio:
Pilgrim Press, 2002), 57.
'^ Ibid., 79.
the church for the sake of Sophia's reign of justice and peace. "^^ This opening to new images of
Jesus in Asian women's theology brings not only an enlivened Christology, but also a method for
addressing, resolving, and healing anger.
Some women are even courageous and creative enough to imagine a Jesus in female
form. Carol Saussy mentions feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock and others in the
Women-Church movement as using the name Christa and Christa community to indicate that
"women are equal members of the body of Christ."' Carter Hey ward, reflecting on the bronze
figure of a female crucified Christ created by British sculptor Edwina Sandys, sees this image of
a female Christ as not merely a "suffering servant," but a liberating force for the world;
She represents an embodied energy that, if released among us, will change the
world... Christa, unlike the male Christ, is controversial because her body signals
a crying need for woman-affirming (nonsexist), erotic (nonerotophobic) power
that, insofar as we share it, will transform a world that includes our own most
personal lives in relation.'
For some of us to remain Christian, our reimagining of Christ often has to wander away
from orthodoxy. A classmate of mine, Emily Robertson, created a stunning hooked rug
depicting a female Jesus. A postcard displaying the rug brought comfort and support to a
number of women, including another fellow classmate undergoing a disappointment and even to
my friend, Cynthia, who was dying of cancer. However, the image of a female Jesus is not
merely another way of inscribing suffering as a model to follow. This Christa is also a figure of
sohdarity, who suffers with us and joins us in the struggle for justice. If we are all called to be
'^ Ibid., 159.
'^ Saussy, The Gift of Anger, 88.
Carter Hey ward, Touching our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (San Francisco: Harper &
Row, 1989), 114.
like Christ, to see Christ in everyone we encounter, what is "inappropriate" about the image of a
female Christ, especially if such an image facilitates our journey on the spiritual path toward love
and justice? As Carter Hey ward joyfully asserts in Touching Our Strength: "There is no greater
delight than to celebrate and share the body of Christa as eternal resource of nourishment on the
sacred journey toward justice. . .She is in the power between us, in our relation, as well as in the
persons we are and are becoming."'^
Daring to Interrogate Jesus
To some traditionalists, it may seem fanciful to dream imaginary conversations with
Jesus about what he really meant to communicate through his life and his teachings. To create
sculpture or textile artwork depicting Jesus as female may appear to be taking liberties with
Jesus' identity. However, for some women, a theology of justice requires not merely dreaming
and imagining, but verbally confronting and challenging Jesus. Latina theologian Leticia A.
Guardiola-Saenz provides a liberationist reading of the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman
in which the woman not merely questions Jesus, but demands justice from him.
In Matthew's story, the Canaanite woman approaches Jesus, asking him to cure her
daughter. Jesus' response is, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
But the woman counters with, "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters' table"
(Matt. 15.28-27). Traditionally, the woman's stance is interpreted as begging and abject, and
this story is read as Jesus demonstrating that even Gentiles have access to the kingdom.
''' Ibid., 117.
Guardiola-Saenz interprets the woman's attitude differently, as "a spirit of protest and
reclamation." Guardiola-Saenz, as a Mexican-American doing theology "on the border" sees
the story as a challenge to the theology and ideology of chosenness: "I hold that the Canaanite
woman is not a humble dog begging for crumbs. She is a dispossessed woman who has
awakened from her position as oppressed and now is coming to confront the empire and demand
her right to be treated as human. "^^ Guariola-Saenz sees the woman's role in this story as one of
teacher, and in this interaction, Jesus is the one who is changed, "She is confronting the
oppressor. He in turn realizes on account of her presence as other that he has overridden her
rights and ignored her existence, but now he has been humanized by her presence. The other
whom he treated as a dog is now giving him a lesson of human courage and love for life."
For those women "on the border" who have been identified as the Other and offered only
crumbs, their interaction with Jesus may involve not merely finding an image of him which is
comforting or nurturing. They may need to confront him and demand that he acknowledge their
existence to the world. This is an interaction that is not only about compassion and healing, but
also about justice and survival.
Leticia A. Gardiola-Saenz, "Reading from Ourselves: Identity and Hermeneutics among Mexican American
Feminists" in A Reader in Latina Feminist Theology ed. Maria Pilar Aquino, Daisy L. Machado, and Jeanette
Rodriguez (Austin, Tx.: University of Texas Press, 2002) 94.
^' Ibid., 95
^^ Ibid., 95.
The Angry Jesus
Jesus may be a healer of anger, but the Jesus of scripture was also a human being who
experienced anger himself. Yet, although Jesus clearly exhibits behavior that is indicative of
anger and in at least one instance, is clearly described as responding to the Pharisees with anger,
parts of the New Testament are clearly opposed to anger or its expression. In Matthew 5:22,
Jesus takes the commandment, "Thou shall not murder" a step further by stating that whoever is
angry at his brother is subject to judgment. However, one translation modifies this to "whoever
is angry without reason" or "without good cause," as William Harris notes. ^^ However, this
admonition may not have been merely about anger, but about the principle of Jesus expanding
the Law's teaching about love of neighbor. Of course, there is also the admonition to turn the
other cheek, and to forgive seventy times seven.
The messages around anger throughout the New Testament are ambiguous, and some
scholars even read some of the passages about the "angry Jesus" as not being about anger at all.
For example, the story of Jesus' cleansing of the temple appears to be an obvious instance of
Jesus displaying anger; however, readings on this text can provide different interpretations,
depending on one's Christology. Was Jesus during this incident asserting his identity as the Son
of God, or was he truly exhibiting his humanity through the emotion of anger? How much of a
rage was Jesus in when he cleansed the temple? The passage in Luke, a mere two verses (19.45-
46) states simply that he "began to drive out those who sold." Mark is more specific about the
damage: "And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who
bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those
William V. Harris, Restraining Rage : The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 2001), 392.
who sold pigeons; and he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple" (Mk.
11.15-16). Here Jesus does cause some significant damage, and he seems especially concerned
with preserving the purity of the temple by keeping those from the outside from carrying
anything in. Matthew adds the element of surprise; immediately before Jesus' temple tantrum,
he has entered Jerusalem with triumphant Hosannas from the crowd. The irony is clear; the
heralded Messiah who is greeted eagerly by the crowd surprises everyone by overturning the
established order. Both Mark and Matthew also juxtapose Jesus' cursing of the fig tree to the
temple cleansing. Was Jesus having a "mad day"?
Only in John's account does Jesus have an actual weapon, the whip of cords. In John's
account, Jesus also makes clearer that the offense of bringing business to the temple is not
merely a desecration of a sacred place. The other accounts have Jesus criticizing the sacrilege of
defiling a house of prayer: "My house shall be a house of prayer'; but you have made it a den of
robbers " (Lk. 19.46), but in John, Jesus' outburst is also about the assertion of his identity:
"You shall not make my Father's house a house of trade" (Jn. 2.16). The incident is immediately
linked to prophecy about the Messiah: "His disciples remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for
thy house will consume me'" (Jn. 17). Jesus then goes on to talk about destroying and rebuilding
the temple in three days, but the temple has become a metaphor for his bodily death and
resurrection. The notes in the Oxford Annotated Bible make clear that John's account is not
about Jesus' anger, but rather about religious reform and the establishment of his identity as the
Christ: "Not an outburst of temper, but the energy of righteousness against religious leaders to
whom religion had become a business. My Father's house is a claim to lordship."^'* Although
Carol Saussy cites several gospel stories as representing Jesus' anger explicitly or "between the
lines," she also sees the story of Jesus' cleansing of the temple and cursing the fig tree as having
more of a symbolic value: "Both the commotion in the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree are
symbolic, prophetic actions. "^^ William Harris, who examines anger as documented and
expressed in ancient Greek and Roman culture in his book Restraining Rage, states that "nothing
is said about his [Jesus'] emotional condition" in of the temple cleansing narratives. ^^
Garret Keizer takes another view of the story. He feels that interpreting Jesus' action as
"calculatingly symbolic" comes close to depicting a docetic Christ: "Such a view strikes me as
very close to the beliefs of certain Gnostic sects, who held that Christ only seemed to suffer on
the cross. To strip Christ of his anger is also to strip him of his passion."^ Keizer acknowledges
that the image evoked by the story is "both beautiful and provocative." He sees both the
identification of Jesus with God, "the zeal of an ego identified with something larger than itself,"
as well as Jesus' "over the top" rage at sacrilege: "As with other actions judged to be too
ideahstic, it is the unflinching realism of Christ's attack that impresses one most... Who, really,
is God? What is the only real response to sacrilege? If not outrage, then how can sacrilege be
Herbert Gordon May and Bruce Manning Metzger, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha 1288-
1299n. Italics are annotators'.
^^ Saussy, The Gift of Anger, 97.
Harris, Restraining Rage, 392.
^^ Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger, 27-28.
^^ Ibid., 26-27.
When Keizer reflects on contemporary stories that remind him of Jesus cleansing the
temple, those stories, strangely enough, all involve women. The first is a story told by Andrea
Dworkin about three women who spilled blood on the merchandise sold in a shop that peddled
S&M equipment and pornography depicting violence against women. Of the women protesters,
Keizer says: "Their actions were completely 'over the top.' Yet I have found myself thinking of
those women every Palm Sunday when we read the account of Christ cleansing the temple.
Wasn't their point that a woman's body is also a temple....? Show me the spot where those
women stood to throw the blood, and I will kneel and pray there." The second story involves a
family held hostage by a hitchhiker, who tied up the father and raped the mother. When he tried
to molest their 5-year-old daughter, "the mother seized a table lamp and proceeded to beat the
man. . . .1 see the lamp wire flailing in the air like a scourge of small cords. When people speak
with disparagement of anger, or with embarrassment at Christ's anger, I think of that woman."
These stories remind me of stories I have heard - stories from the interfaith peace group that
visited the School of Americas and told of the witness of the nuns who covered themselves with
blood and lay down on the road by the entrance of the school, and the never-ending story of a
Roman Catholic nun, Sr. Jane, a former teacher and mentor of mine, who has been in what my
family humorously refer to as "the slammer," on both sides of the bars, as minister and as
prisoner for her many acts of civil disobedience. These are also stories of symbolic acts, but the
intentionality of the symbolism does not erase the power of the anger and outrage that energized
^'^ Ibid., 35-36.
Jesus' cursing of the fig tree is another instance of his anger that has been interpreted as
symbolic. In Matthew's account, the story is also apparently about the power of faith because
Jesus follows his curse with "Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not
only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and
cast into the sea,' it will be done" (Mt. 21.21). Mark makes explicit that it is not the season for
figs (Mk 1 1.13), so Jesus is expecting something from a source that, according to its nature,
cannot provide what he wants when he wants it. Carol Saussy notes that the fig tree could by
symbolic of the temple itself, or of the nation guided by the temple elite, "The fig tree, symbol of
peace, security, and prosperity, which scripture scholars believe in some cases symbolizes the
nation itself, is judged worthless." Again, this story, which can be argued as metaphorical or
illustrative of a teaching moment between Christ and the disciples, also can be interpreted in a
way that essentially detaches Christ's humanity. Garret Keizer does not buy this picture of a
detached Christ: "Christ doesn't appear to have taken his disciples into a grove of fig trees in
order to demonstrate an eschatological idea or a metaphysical truth. He goes there looking for
figs." That Jesus is looking for figs out of season makes his anger a bit absurd: "Here, the anger
of Christ is not only personal in the smallest sense, but seemingly irrational and childish as
well." But this Christ is also human, rather Hke the person cursing because of bad road
conditions during a snowstorm in February; what else can one expect — it's February! To
translate this metaphor to one that may also apply to the relationship between anger and justice,
that person while driving in the snowstorm may also be cursing at the latest news on the car radio
^" Saussy, The Gift of Anger, 98.
^' Keizer, The Enigma of Anger, 29-30.
about war, violence, poverty, or destruction at home or abroad. If Jesus is not like us, in every
human emotion, even anger that might occasionally seem unreasonable, then how can we find
meaning in his story? Keizer links the humanity of the anger of cursing the fig tree with that
other tree: "Without his anguish, without his passion - tell me, who would it be who died on the
cross, and how could I ever imagine myself redeemed by his death? Perhaps it was only by
cursing a tree that he could hang on one and be cursed for my sake."^^
These are not the only places where Jesus exhibits anger in scripture; however, the only
place in which Jesus is actually described as being angry, what William Harris describes as ''orge
to the 'obstinate stupidity' of his opponents" is in the story of the healing of the man with the
withered hand (Mk 3.1-6).^^ In Mark's version, the narrator specifically labels Jesus' anger:
"And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart" (Mk. 3.5). Jesus is
clearly angry at the synagogue authorities, who have given following the letter of the law
precedence over taking care of the sick and disabled. Jesus' expression of anger also has
repercussions because the end of the story tells how the Pharisees consulted with the Herodians
on how to destroy Jesus (Mk. 3.6). As Carol Saussy puts it, expressing anger to those in power
also entails risk: "In reaction to his creative use of anger, he received the anger of fear and
hatred: Jesus must be destroyed... Jesus' anger at injustice is fair warning to women and men: if
you express your justice-anger, then the powers-that-be may well work to destroy you with their
^^ Ibid., 33.
Harris, Restraining Rage, 392.
Saussy, The Gift of Anger, 95.
While Jesus clearly expresses what Saussy calls the anger of hope, which is anger
expressed to inspire change, it is through Jesus' anger of despair that he encounters the fullness
of humanity. Jesus' crying out the words of the Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you
forsaken me?" leads to a further question about Jesus and anger: "Was anger part of Jesus'
agony, or had he moved beyond anger to depression and resignation?"^^ Garret Keizer reminds
us that Jesus was not a Stoic, and Alastair Campbell asserts that Jesus is not like "the Eastern
sage, secure in spiritual detachment."^ Jesus shares with us everything that we experience, the
anger, the grief, the loneliness, and the despair. Jesus' suffering joins in our own daily
sufferings, whatever they may be: "Thus we find in Jesus a real battle between hope and despair,
a struggle with which we can identify because it reflects our own reactions to loss, when we will
allow ourselves to feel the intensity of the pain without the anodyne of a false rehgion."
Feminist theologian Gabriele Dietrich, who sees a female image of Jesus Christ in the
link between women's menstruation and Jesus' blood, creates her own version of the 22" Psalm
in the poem One Day I Shall be Like a Banyan Tree:
I am a woman
And my blood
Who are you
To deny life
^^ Ibid., 99
Campbell, The Gospel of Anger, 99.
" Ibid., 99.
To the life-givers?^^
When Christ or Christa cries out in despair, the cry is not merely about one injustice, but
injustice, not merely individual abandonment, but the human experience of abandonment. The
psalms were Christ's language of expressing these feelings of profound despair. Today, others
find their own language to express these experiences, whether through theological imaginings,
new images, stories, or even poetry. By joining our stories with Christ's story, Christ joins us in
our questioning, our desperation, our sadness, and even our anger.
Gabriele Dietrich, "One Day I Shall Be Like a Banyan Tree" in Chung, Struggle to be the Sun again, 66-67.
ANGER IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN TRADITION; WHO HAS THE PRIVILEGE OF
Early Christianity in Empire
Jesus was not a Stoic, but a living, breathing, fully human being, capable of the fall range
of human emotions; however, in the culture in which he lived, the influence of Greek philosophy
on both Hellenic Judaism and early Christianity had a profound impact on the theology of anger
that developed. Stoicism, a "Greco-Roman philosophy that taught patience, self-control, and
submission to fate"^ was one of the prevailing philosophies during Jesus' time and afterward. A
few passages in the New Testament, particularly in Paul, as well as the Letter to James, may
have been influenced by this philosophy.
For example, in the letter to the Ephesians, Christians are counseled, "Be angry, but do
not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil." (Eph.
4.26-27) Clearly, in Ephesians, as elsewhere, the audience being addressed consists of early
Christians who are trying to live in community, so the advice may be influenced as much by the
desire to keep people of differing opinions in community, as by the desire to define anger as sin.
For later, in 4.31-32, he writes, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be
put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one
another, as God in Christ forgave you." However, in Galatians 5.20, he lists anger along with
other sins or "works of the flesh": "fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery,
enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension." But when Paul is exercised about a
Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger : Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 32.
disagreement on theology or Christian praxis, he is perfectly willing to express anger, as he does
earlier in the same chapter about those who insist on circumcision: "I wish those who unsettle
you would castrate themselves!" (5.12)
The Letter of James also counsels against anger: "Let every man be quick to hear, slow
to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God." (1.19-20)
William Harris points out in the New English Translation both the use of the Greek word orge
for anger and rage, and the word "justice" instead of "righteousness." In this instance, anger is
seen as something that would hinder the exercise of justice or God's righteousness, rather than
help to enact it. This is an unusual statement for the most "activist" letter of the New
Testament! For the most part, Harris characterizes the New Testament epistles as instructing the
follower of Jesus to "turn over" anger to "God, who will do the punishing for him or her," as
stated in Romans 12.19: "Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is
written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." Here are the beginnings of the
concept of "offering it up" later prescribed as part of the discipline of humility to be assumed by
The adoption by the early church of elements of Stoic philosophy may not merely have
been a merging of sympathetic ideas, but a strategy for survival in the Roman Empire. The
Roman philosopher, Seneca, in De ira ("Of Anger"), created the character of the Wise Man, who
was the embodiment of stoic virtue. Harris describes Seneca's Wise Man: "The Wise Man will
not be angry, not even at what is disgraceful... Further arguments are produced to demonstrate
William V. Harris, Restraining Rage : The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 2001), 394.
that anger is not useful, and not inevitable, and not characteristic of freedom or nobility." On
Seneca, Garret Keizer writes: "For Seneca, anger is an emotion that arises when our will finds
itself in opposition to the world as it is... In his view anger is the sign of a man not fully resigned
to 'reality.'" For early Christians living in the Roman Empire, the reality to which they must
resign themselves was living under imperial rule; therefore, Stoicism was a convenient
philosophy to help those in power stay in power and to keep those who were not of the ruling
class from resisting that power. As Keizer surmises, "Stoicism strikes me as a philosophy
nurtured by an imperial world. Change yourself, it seems to say, because you're never going to
The adoption of Stoicism into early Christianity extended to leaders of the early church.
William Harris cites Clement of Alexandria as "an advocate of apatheia," and anger began to be
classified as sin in the "vice catalogues." Certainly, the Stoic virtue of detachment was an
influence for the spiritual discipline of monasticism that later emerged in Christianity. Evagrius
of Pontus, one of the earlier monks following the Alexandrian school and "systematizer of the
spiritual theology of Origenist Egyptian monasticism" also emphasized the importance of
maintaining "passionlessness" or apatheia in order to attain true knowledge or Gnosis.^ He
viewed anger as a vice that was particularly distracting and detrimental to prayer life, even more
damaging than gluttony or sexual desire. While the desires of the body, particularly sex.
^ Ibid., 113.
Keizer, The Enigma of Anger, 32.
^ Ibid., 32.
Harris, Restraining Rage, 288.
Columba Stewart, "Evagrius Ponticus on Prayer and Anger," in Princeton Readings in Religions: Religions of
Late Antiquity in Practice, ed. Richard Valantasis (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 66.
diminish with time, anger continues into old age, and is especially provoked by the frustration of
daily life and interaction with others; therefore, anger is a particular challenge to someone
committed to hving within a spiritual community. In his "Fifth Treatise: Against the Demon of
Anger," Evagrius quotes scripture passages, following them with his own commentary. The
prohibitions against anger do not consider that there may be some possibility of a just cause for
anger, and even Paul's counsel to slaves --"If you were a slave when called, do not be concerned
with yourself (1 Cor. 7.21) — is accompanied by the comment: "Against the thought of anger
that is enraged about someone who curses us [when we are] in service." ^
Some of the early Christian noncanonical writings also place special emphasis on
remaining detached from emotions and practicing self-control as a virtue. The Teachings of
Silvanus, which is classified as an early Christian wisdom book^ , contains the advice: "Intensify
the struggle against every folly of the passions of hve and base wickedness and love of praise
and fondness of contention, and tiresome jealousy and wrath, and anger and desire."^' In The
Shepherd ofHermas, the Lord instructs the Shepherd about the need to change his family life:
"But make these words known to all your children and to your wife, who is about to be your
sister. For she does not control her tongue, with which she sins. But when she hears these words
she will control herself and will obtain mercy." In this passage, the Shepherd is counseled to
avoid sexual desire by relating to his wife as a sister, but clearly the wife herself is the source of
* Ibid., 67-68.
^ Evagrius quoted in Ibid. 77.
Anonymous, "The Teachings of Silvanus," in The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the
Gnostic Scriptures, ed. James M. Robinson (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 379.
" Ibid. 84.19-25.
The Shepherd of Hermas," in The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, ed. Bart D. Ehrman (New
York; Oxford University Press, 1998), 386-406.
most of the sins relating to a lack of control over emotions. As we shall see, the identification of
women with "out of control" emotions was a commonplace in Greco-Roman culture.
Those Wild Viragos
Keizer in his chapter, "Anger as Privilege" talks about the privilege of anger; "Anger
does indeed have a privilege. . .Anyone who would look consciously at his own anger would do
well to ask, first of all, To what extent am I allowed this storm of mine? To what extent does it
represent a privilege — of my size, my sex, my reputation, my status?" In the Greco-Roman
world, righteous anger was clearly a privilege exercised by the ruling class consisting of males.
Women and slaves were not permitted anger, and if they did display it, they were violating the
social code. In both Greek and Roman culture, women's anger is depicted as being "out of
control," mad as crazy as well has mad as angry. Of course, Greek theater and mythology is
replete with images of women who are "out of control." Clytemestra wreaks savage vengeance
on Agamemnon when he commits essentially the same act as Japheth in the book of Judges.
Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter in exchange for a military victory; his mad-crazy wife pays
him back by murdering him and his lover. In one of the most famous tales of female rage,
Medea kills her own children to revenge herself on her unfaithful husband. Only Hercules
matches this level of rage and violence, but Hercules is still a "hero," while these women are
clearly "mad" in every sense of the word.
In his book. Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity,
William Harris argues the specific reason for the prohibition of women's anger: "Why exactly
Keizer, The Enigma of Anger, 98.
should Greek and perhaps Roman men have wished to reserve anger for their own use?... anger
is judgmental. To be angry, it has been argued, is to put oneself in the position of judge, which
for a woman in a patriarchal society means to be insubordinate,"
Not surprisingly, the objects of anger for upper class women in both Greek and Roman
society were serving women and slaves. Galen writes of his mother being irascible and abusive
toward her slave women, even biting them. Apparently, the story of Sarah and Hagar in Hebrew
culture had many parallels in the Greco-Roman world, and in fact, similar stories were told with
much less sympathy toward both the angry mistress and the abused serving women. While Sarah
has some power over Abraham in the Biblical story, women in Greek and Roman culture were
more restricted. For example, "If the husband commits 'some little error' with a hetaira or
slave-woman, the wife should not aganaktein or chalepaineirin — that is, make a fuss or get
cross." Plutarch is cited as saying that a "wife should have no emotions of her own."^^ It was
expected that the men of the ruling class use women of the serving class to their own desires and
for the wives to tolerate it. And if a woman of the serving class is abused or maligned, unlike
Hagar, the Greek or Roman slave woman is at the mercy of the legal system, rather than of the
faithful Yahweh who hears her cry. For instance, in the story of Neaera, a virtuous slave woman
on trial for assuming citizens' rights is maligned by being labeled a prostitute, but the jurors are
challenged not to acquit her because the citizen wives at home would become angry for allowing
^^ Harris, Restraining Rage, 274-275.
'^ Ibid., 273.
Neaera to share their status.' So, while upper class wives could at least display anger to their
"inferiors," lower class women had no rights whatsoever.
Who Gets the Orge?
The early merging of Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine detracted from the
egalitarian message of compassion and justice of the Jesus of the Gospels and of the first
Christian communities. For Greek philosophy, developed by male intellectual elites, presented
definitions and ethics of anger that had specific power implications. Through this evolution,
anger became not merely an emotional response that can either be a destructive force or an
inspiration for human agency to change a situation, but depending on who exercised it, either
privilege or sin. In looking at this development, the question of feminist ethicist Beverly
Harrison poses about Christian moral tradition is especially pertinent: "We need a strong
hermeneutic of suspicion about morals and moral traditions, and should always be asking,
'Whose voice are we hearing here?'" At this point, we are leaving the world of the stories,
which we can either creatively relate to our own experiences or choose to read subversively, and
we are venturing into the world of dualism and dogma, as defined by a core group of cultural
William Harris explores the development of the Greek concept of orge, which is rage or
"anger without reason" in conjunction with Aristotelian definitions of anger, which distinguishes
orge by its physical manifestations. "The natural scientist will call it a boiling [zesis] of the
'^ Ibid., 269.
Beverly Wildung Harrison and Elizabeth M. Bounds, Justice in the Making : Feminist Social Ethics, Istd ed.
(Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 11.
blood [or heat] which is about the heart."^^ Aristotle's definition of anger is limited to the desire
for revenge, and Harris critiques this limitation: "Adult humans. . .often feel and express anger
even when they are in no position to avenge themselves or retaliate, and they certainly
sometimes feel angry — with themselves, for example, or with their own children — without any
desire for revenge at all." The expression of rage may exceed the classical definition of anger,
which has a rational component, "[I]n all ages the quintessential scene of anger, because it is so
full of unpredictability and drama, is a display of titanic rage, which no one can continue for very
But Harris also notes that Aristotle expands his definition: "People grow angry, he says,
when they are in distress (lupoumenoi). " Anger can also be invoked as a response to real or
perceived attacks on self-worth: "People grow angry with those who laugh at, ridicule, or jeer at
them." For Aristotle, "slighting," or the act of insulting one's self- worth or self-esteem, has a
great deal to do with the provocation of ogre because ancient Greek culture was an honor/shame
culture rather than a guilt culture. Also, if appropriate anger is reserved for those of privilege,
particularly males of the upper class, anger serves the purpose of protecting honor.
Another Greek writer, Chrysippus, takes the provocation to ogrs a step further, beyond
slighting, to injustice, thus defining ogre as "the desire to retaliate ... against one who seems to
have performed an injustice contrary to one's desserts."^' Ogre also involves "action, as well as
Aristotle cited in Harris, Restraining Rage, 57.
^^ Ibid., 58-59.
^° Ibid., 59.
Chrysippus cited in Ibid., 61.
feeling ...[as] a standard ingredient," implying that with anger also comes punishment, so that
anger was not merely "inner rage but . . . infliction of concrete penalties."
Although ogre was often portrayed as a form of madness, a certain amount of low level
anger was assumed as the prerogative of those in power over their inferiors: "an ancient person
could easily believe that the wise man should never be angry without giving up the prerogative
of being irritated, and - more important — without stinting on the punishment of his or her slaves
or the reprimanding of children." In other words, a person of a higher social status has a
certain right to anger.
Aristotle: An Early Ethic of Anger
Since much of the early patristic theology about anger, particularly that of Aquinas, is
based on Aristotle, examining this Greek classical source provides a useful basis for discussion.
To begin, Aristotle admits that there are valid reasons for showing anger, and the "good-
tempered" person is "angry about the things reason says one should."" The gender-specific
language used to describe the person who uses anger righteously is noteworthy. The persons
who show anger in appropriate circumstances, but are also able to temper their anger to the
situation, are called "manly, since they are capable of being in control. "^^ While Aristode
characterizes those who are angry in excess as "irascible,", he is equally critical of those who do
no show anger over situations that call for that response:
People who do not get angry over what they should seem silly, as do those who
do not get angry as or when they should or with people they should. . .They seem
^^ Ibid.,, 62-63.
" Ibid., 63-64.
^^ Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, ed. C.C.W. Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Iv.5.1126al-2
not to notice those things nor to be distressed by them, and as they do not get
angry, they are not apt to defend themselves; but putting up with being dragged
through the mud oneself and standing by watching it happen to people who
belong to one is slavish.
Here, the language is particularly telling. Those who are not indignant or angry at
injustices or slights are classified as "silly" (could the implication also be womanly or
unmasculine?) and clearly below the class of the "good-tempered" person who feels and exhibits
anger appropriately; in fact, such individuals are "slavish".
Those who repress their anger, but retain it internally are equally flawed. Aristotle is
critical of bitter people who "are angry for a long time; for they bottle up their fury." Unlike the
irascible, who express their anger and are done with it, the bitter ones who suppress unexpressed
grievances "retain the burden of their anger... People like that are the most burdensome to
themselves and to their closest friends."
Thomas Aquinas: Christian Variations
Thomas Aquinas used some of Aristotle's ethics of anger to develop his own theology in
his treatise on fear and anger. Thomas did not find an exact opposite of anger, as he did with the
other vices, for within anger, he discerned a combination of complex emotions, "sadness, delight,
and hope." The initial anger is the combination of sadness and desire because usually the angry
person desires something, but is frustrated because he cannot obtain it, or the angry person
expected certain treatment or respect from someone and did not receive it. In this way, anger can
be classified as disagreeable because the person does not receive what he expects to obtain, be
^^ Ibid., iv.5, 1126a, 4-9.
^^Ibid., iv.5, 1126a, 20-27.
I use the masculine pronoun throughout the discussion of Thomas to apply to humans as well as God because
Thomas excluded women from most of his theological analysis.
it respect or some material object. The result of this impasse is that the angry person desires
revenge, which can even be perceived as a "good," but this "good" is contradictory, both
desirable and disagreeable: "revenge, sought for and hoped for as agreeable, as delightful;
towards the one from whom satisfaction is desired as an opponent and assailant and hence as
Aquinas appears to be split on whether anger is rational. In Art. 4 of Question 46 on
anger, he asserts: "Anger is not a rational act. As an emotion anger is in the sense appetite. "^*^
Later, however, Aquinas distinguishes anger from hatred because anger is limited by the
demands of justice: "When the evil inflicted exceeds the measure of justice. . .the angry man
will relent." The desire for justice can be part of anger and even indicates that anger can be
influenced by reason. Aquinas notes that anger can have due cause: "Anger arises from a
mental disturbance brought on by an injury."^^
However, Aquinas follows Aristotle closely in asserting that anger can occur only against
an individual, not against a class, group, or system. In Article 7 of his section on anger, he deals
with the question: "Are anger and justice concerned with the same object?" Aquinas' response
seems to be - not always. For instance, a person can become angry against an inanimate object,
or a person can even become angry with himself. Aquinas does acknowledge that injustice can
occur between the individual and the community: "Justice and injustice can prevail between an
Thomas, Summa Theologiae. Latin Text and English Translation, Introductions, Notes, Appendices, and
Glossaries (Cambridge Eng; Blackfriars, 1965)la2ae q. 46, art. 2
^^ ST, la2aeq. 46, an. 4.
^^ ST, la2ae q. 46, art. 6.
individual and entire class or a whole community." Despite this recognition, Aquinas, does not
believe that anger can exist between an individual and a systemic entity: "The State, for
example, may wrong an individual. But a man cannot become angry at a whole class, only at a
single individual. " (italics the author's) Like Aristotle, who sees anger as a reaction to a
"sHght," Aquinas also views anger as an emotion exercised by those of higher social status.
Carol Tavris in her book on anger points out the shortcomings of Aquinas' theology:
Saint Thomas Aquinas imagined that people feel angry only when they are
offended by their inferiors: "Thus a nobleman is angry if he be insulted by a
peasant' a wise man, if by a fool; a master, if by a servant." If the nobleman
insults the peasant, on the other hand, 'anger does not ensue, but only sorrow."
The irritating habit of modern peasants to react to insult with anger instead of
sorrow, is of course, the story of revolution. ""^
Clearly, Aquinas' theology, like Aristotle's theories and philosophy of anger, is one that
applies to those who have the right to feel privileged and experience the sting of a "slight" to
their position. It does not seem as if either of these great figures of Western philosophy are able
to put themselves in the place of those who are not allowed by society to articulate their anger.
This individualistic perception of which situations may or may not arouse anger also
leads to a further assumption about suppressing anger. If one is of a particular social position,
and one chooses to rise above expressing anger, then one is behaving virtuously. Gabriele
Taylor in the analysis of anger and pride in Deadly Vices links these two "vices" together. Anger
arises from a conflict between one's self-evaluation and how others treat one, but the virtuous
^^ ST, la2aeq. 46. art. 7.
"57, la2aeq. 46. art. 7.
Carol Tavris, Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 227.
person, particularly the Christian, needs to give up the sense of pride and esteem arising from
...there is an assumption that a person's self-evaluation necessarily depends at
least to a degree on the treatment received from other people, for only if this is
assumed will a slight from others be potentially so harmful. But this need not be
so, and is not so on, for instance, the view that self-esteem depends not at all on
the behaviour of others but rather upon acting in a manner which accords with
God's plan for the world, and this may include the meek acceptance of
humiliating treatment... On this view anger may emerge as a deadly sin in its own
right, as an infringement of divine law.
This acceptance of repression of anger as a virtue and the labeling of anger as sin assumes that
the individual is already in a place of status or power; therefore, to let go of a grievance for the
sake of God or virtue may be perceived as an exercise of spiritual discipline. But what about
those who have no position or status? What do they have to give up in their "meek acceptance of
humiliating treatment?" For them, this is not an "offering up" of part of their status, but merely a
continued acceptance of the status quo. The prohibition of anger as sin in this case merely gives
those who are in power the opportunity to feel virtuous if they exercise restraint, while those who
are oppressed must continue to accept their lot in life. In this "ethic" of anger, the privileged
have the opportunity either to express anger "justly" and reasonably in response to a perceived
injustice or slight, or demonstrate their goodness by restraining the exercise of their anger. But
the voices of others - women, the serving classes, marginalized people - are not mentioned or
acknowledged. These people and their anger remain invisible. As the Mexican feminist
theologian, Nora Lozano-Diaz points out, a theology that is created from abstract and immutable
theories is doomed to be exclusionary and ultimately irrelevant: "The classical notion of an
^^ Gabriele Taylor, Deadly Vices (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2006), 83.
objective, general, universal, unchanging theology has been challenged as a theology that can be
oppressive, irrelevant, and false... Theology needs to be grounded in a specific context where a
particular group of people, a community, can recognize it, relate to it." The "classical"
theology of anger is one created by and for elite males; women and the poor have no role in it.
While Aquinas does not mention an opposite to anger because he perceives anger as a
combination of different emotions, his theology, which clearly follows the Greek line of dualistic
thinking that separates the emotions from the mind and sees denial of the emotions as virtue,
clearly implies the opposite of anger: detachment and dissociation. Carol Saussy in her work
describes women's labehng of the opposite of anger as "nonfeeling, numbness, death."
Another feminist theologian, Mary Daly, starts with Aquinas' discussion of contraries and
cleverly uses the "master's tools" to deconstruct negative theologies of anger. "I suggest that
dissociation is the 'missing contrary' of the passion of anger. Anger can be seen as different
from the other passions in this respect, namely, that when it is blocked, its movement or energy
splinters into fragments within the psyche." In other words, the virtuous person is the person
detached from emotions, and perhaps ultimately, from the self.
In such a theology, one might assume that God, as the One with ultimate power and
privilege, might also have the privilege of anger. However, God is above such emotion. A stoic
God, beset by rationality, has replaced the "jealous" Old Testament God, who at least has an
ongoing relationship with the people of Israel. An earlier theologian who also based his
Nora O. Lozano-Diaz, "Ignored Virgin or Unaware Women: A Mexican-American Protestant Reflection on the
Virgin of Guadalupe" in A Reader in Lxitina Feminist Theology, ed. Maria Pilar Aquino, Daisy L. Machado, and
Jeanette Rodriguez (Austin, Tx.: University of Texas Press, 2002) 204.
Carroll Saussy, The Gift of Anger : A Call to Faithfiil Action (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press,
Mary Daly, Pure Lust : Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 370.
theology of anger on Aristotle, Augustine, states that God is not truly angry in the same way that
humans are, but the word for that emotion is used because that is the only way that we can
understand God: "Now when God is said to be angry, we do not attribute to Him such a
disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man; but we call His just displeasure against
sin by the name 'anger,' a word transferred by analogy from human emotions. "^^ Aqumas
describes a similarly detached God: "In attributing anger to God what is signified is not an
emotion but a just judgment and the will to punish sin. By his sin, a sinner cannot really injure
God."'^^ Here, we have traveled from a steadfastly loving but jealous God of the Old Testament
to a God who is himself dissociated from humankind.
A Relational Vision: Julian of Norwich
Another theologian, Julian of Norwich, ' a woman mystic living in England about a
century after Thomas Aquinas, portrayed a different image of a God - an image of a loving being
who was fully relational. Julian presented a theology of anger that was compassionate and based
on human experience rather than on metaphysics and doctrine. Julian's theology developed
from the "showings" or visions that she received after an illness; in these visions, God revealed
Augustine, "The Enchiridion," Basic Writings of St. Augustine, ed. Whitney Jennings Oates (New York: Random
'^^ST, la2ae,47, 1.
' Although some may classify Julian as "merely" a mystic, a number of scholars now consider her a theologian of
some stature. See especially Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich : Mystic and Theologian, (New York: Paulist Press,
2000), Brant Pelphrey, Love was His Meaning : The Theology and Mysticism of Julian of Norwich (Salzburg,
Austria: Institut fiir Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universitat Salzburg, 1982), and the notes by Nicolas Watson in
Julian et al., The Writings of Julian of Norwich : A Vision showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love, ed.
Nicolas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006).
God's self to her in the image the compassionate creator of the hazelnut, in a revelation of the
loving and crucified Christ, and even in the image of Christ as Mother.
Like Augustine and Aquinas, Julian of Norwich believes that God is not truly
angry with humans, but not because God is "above" such emotions. While Augustine claims that
God cannot have human passions, and that the word anger is what is available in our language to
describe what should be God's response to our sinfulness, Julian believes that God is all loving
and devoid of anger: "God is that goodnesse that may not be wroth, for God is not [nothing] but
goodness. ""^^ (46. 28-29) Rather, humans perceive God as wrathful because they are in such
dread due to their sinfulness: "For I saw no wrath but on mannes perty, and that forgiveth he in
us." (49: 5-6) In Julian's vision, humans themselves are wrathful: "For we by sinne and
wretchednesse have in us a wrath and a continuant contrariousness to pees [peace] and to love."
(48: 8-10) According to Brant Pelphrey, Julian, hke the ancient Greeks and patristic sources,
sees wrath as a from of madness, "a madness or lashing out." But this anger is not entirely due
to ill-will, but to our ignorance and even feelings of powerlessness, "either it cometh of failing of
might, or of failing of wisdom, or of failing of goodnesse, which failing is not in God, but in our
party." (48: 6-7) Pelphrey states: "Julian attributes wrath specifically ...to a lack of
knowledge. . .or to the inability to respond with love, or the feeling of being unloved. It is due,
then, to helplessness." ^^
The "wrath" that springs from feelings of helplessness and hopelessness is much like the
han described by Asian and Asian-American theologians Andrew Sung Park, Chun Hyun Kung,
All quotations from Julian are from Julian et al., The Writings of Julian of Norwich : A Vision showed to a Devout
Woman and A Revelation of Love, ed. Nicolas Watson.
^^ Pelphrey, Love was His Meaning, 159.
and Grace Kim. Julian's God who loves and forgives unconditionally has much in common with
Jesus the Shaman, or Christ Sophia, the healer of han. However, while these theologians see
anger/han as a driving force for change, Julian's vision, despite its comforting aspects, falls short
of perceiving anger as having any constructive or redemptive characteristics. Julian also sees
wrath in conjunction with sin, which separates one from the self. According to Pelphrey, in
Julian's perception: "One characteristic of wrath, or loss of control, is that it is a deviation from
our ordinary behaviour: an individual ceases to 'be himself."
But could there be an anger that causes one to be more oneself, an anger that can be a
self-assertion in response to God? While JuHan's vision is the story of one woman's submission
to the love of God, does the expression of this relationship always have to be a passive one? Can
this relationship involve resistance and even anger to situations of injustice?
"There Was a Little Girl...." Another Story
In some earlier research, I came across was an interesting scholarly article on the tale of a
medieval saint, Gertrude, a pre-teen girl who throws a public temper tantrum when her father
insists that she marry a youth from a noble family. Gertrude's true desire is to become a nun and
serve Christ, and the context of her rebellion is couched in the language of her perception of
herself as the spouse of Christ.'^^ Initially, I dismissed the article as a piece of esoteric analysis
about just another archaic saint's story from the church's early history. After having emotionally
and intellectually processed some of my other research, I returned to this story with a perception
^^ Ibid., 160.
"^ Catherine Peyroux, "Gertrude's Furor: Reading Anger in an Early Medieval Saint's Life," Religion and Emotion:
Approaches and Interpretations ed. John Corrigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 305-25.
of its relevance on many levels. The author of the article, Catherine Peyroux, focuses on the
intensity of this child's anger:
To say simply that the little girl expressed 'indignation' or 'lost her temper'
would hardly seem to convey the disruptive power of Gertrude's wrath. Rather,
the saint is explicitly marked as having appeared to her audience, 'furore replete,'
'possessed or filled with raging madness.' In choosing to cast Gertrude's anger as
furor the author of her Life would seem to have invoked a form of wrath that
stood oppositionally to normal human concourse."^
Peyroux merely retells the story and analyzes the language without judgment, as if
creating the dots for a "connect-the-dots" diagram," and it is a simple process to connect them to
form a new interpretation of this picture. Here is a young girl, filled with an anger that is
perceived as superhuman, raging for both her own independence of choice and her passion for
God. Of course, this rage must be redefined and presented in a religiously and socially
acceptable context. If she is rejecting society's demands that she subject herself to the patriarchy
of her father's house and an arranged marriage, that choice must be translated into a choice for a
superior sort of patriarchy, her self-definition as the "bride of Christ." Yet, despite this
translation of her rage into socially acceptable terms, the grandiosity of this little girl's anger is
still impressive. It is easy to form a mental image of this begowned tyke in the mead hall,
loudly declaring her demands, and stamping her foot. Here is the power of anger resisting
injustice, anger emerging from a young girl standing on the brink between childhood and
adolescence. The anger is not a denial of self, but an assertion of self, and this anger is not
defined as sinful.
Of course, this story of anger also has its drawbacks. It is still the story of a privileged
person. Gertrude may be marginalized because of her age and her sex, but her story is one of a
young girl of some social position, and it is documented by someone of the educated class. It is
also the story of individual standing up for herself, rather than of someone standing up for an
injustice against an entire group of people. What if Gertrude were not the daughter of someone
of status, but the daughter of a feudal serf being sold into marriage to rescue her family from
poverty, or worse yet, sold into prostitution? (In the next chapter, we will hear one such
contemporary story from a non-Western context, that of the Thai woman Buo.) Would
Gertrude's story then have made it into this little history?
Gertrude, straddling the line between girlhood and womanhood, is at the point in
development at which, according to many psychologists, girls still feel free to express their
authentic emotions. In Gertrude's case, passion for God inspires and liberates her voice. As we
shall see in the next chapter, which also examines girls from somewhat privileged circumstances
through Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan's well-known study of the development of girls,
frank and honest expressions of anger often emerge from girls at preadolescence. In the
medieval world, hearing the voice of such youthful angry truth tellers was a rare experience, but
in the modern and even "postmodern" era, such truth telling still carries its own risks.
REFLECTING ON OUR STORIES TODAY
The Tyranny of Nice and Kind
To "flash forward" several centuries from Gertrude's story is not as great a leap as we
might at first imagine. The story of Gertrude, straddling the age between girlhood and
adolescence, has elements in common with another group of stories, the stories of the girls
studied and interviewed in Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown's study of girls' psychological
and moral development in Meeting the Crossroads. These girls must navigate the complex
territory of peer relationships and adult authority, a territory for which the map is often unclear,
and in which one must modulate one's voice if one is to get the proper directions.
These girls, students at the Laurel School, who were studied for several years, starting
around age eight, demonstrate various levels of self-assertion and self-restraint. For some of the
girls, the authentic voice, which has the courage to express anger, is most present in the
preadolescent years. Karin, the girl who chooses to leave the classroom because she is angry
with her teacher for not listening to her, may have much in common with the medieval Gertrude.
Another girl, Diana, like Gertrude, also creates a dinnertime "scene." Diana is annoyed because
her brother and sister keep "stealing" her mother's attention by constantly interrupting her. One
night, Diana chose to bring a whistle to the dinner table, and when her brother and sister
interrupted her, she blew the whistle: "Mother, brother, and sister, she says, abruptly stopped
talking and turned to her, at which point she said 'in a normal voice, 'That's much nicer."' At
this point, these girls are aware of who they are, what their needs are, and what they need to do
Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 43.
to get those needs met. They dare to be "whistle-blowers": "These seven- and eight- year-olds
blow the whistle on relational violations, such as interrupting, ignoring, hurting people's
feelings, by dramatizing their experiences."
Another girl in the study, Jessie, is already learning about the complexities of friendship,
which are not always kind. She tells a story of being at a friend's house and being ignored
because that friend has asked other girls over. When asked what she would do to change the
situation, she says that she would tell her friend, 'This is really making me feel bad, for leaving
me out," and then she would go home. She would then later invite the same friend to her house
and show her "the bad feelings of being left out."
But by third grade, Jessie has incorporated her parents' message that "Cooperating is
better than fighting," and she is willing to make some sacrifices for the sake of friendship:
"Jessie is now sometimes willing to be nice to make the relationship 'calm' and her friends
happy so they will play with her, rather than because she feels like being nice." By the third year
of the study, Jessie is clearly aware of the dangers of expressing strong feelings: "Her strong
feelings, spoken directly and with passion, can be dangerous since they are disruptive. Signs of
disruption — anger and noise, getting riled up and anxious — are cause for being 'ignored,' left
out, abandoned." Jessie is now learning about what it means to be the "perfect girl," a girl
whom she both aspires to be but also hates, "the girl who has no bad thoughts or feelings, the
kind of person everyone wants to be with... The girl who speaks quietly, calmly, who is always
^ Ibid., 44.
^ Ibid., 54.
"^ Ibid., 57.
nice and kind, never mean or bossy." Becoming this girl also means sacrificing her voice in
order to avoid being excluded:
When you are really mad at somebody and you want to say something really bad,
but you can't, you just can't. It's like it comes out of your mouth and you forget
what you are going to say... or I don't say something because... somebody says a
good idea and everybody agrees and mine is like the exact opposite and you don't
want everybody to leave you out and say, "Oh, that's horrible!"^
As Jessie progresses toward puberty, she begins to realize that in order to be accepted, the
cost may very well be her authentic voice. However, another girl in the study, Sonia, feels the
need to suppress her voice at an earlier age because he voice is the marginalized voice. Sonia is
one of the only two African- American girls in her class. With the white interviewer during the
first year of the study, Sonia presents as evasive and vague, as if she doesn't really understand
the full meaning of the questions being asked, her answers peppered with "I don't know" and "I
don't remember." Only in the story of the porcupine is Sonia completely honest. In this story, a
porcupine is trying to share space with the moles, and the porcupine's quills are hurting the
moles. Unlike the other girls, who try to find some way to accommodate the porcupine, Sonia
says outright that she would "push the intruder out of the cave and admonish him for his short-
sightedness — 'You should have found a home in the springtime that you could've stayed in the
wintertime.'" However, when asked about an instance in which she is treated unfairly, Sonia
mentions that sometimes she gets blamed by the teacher for things that the other girls do, but
when the white interviewer asks only one follow-up question, Sonia replies, "I can't remember."
In the second-year interview, Sonia changes the story of the porcupine in a way that might
^ Ibid., 59.
^ Ibid., 64.
suggest an interpretation of her own experience of difference in the mostly white school: "The
porcupine, she suggests, could 'go with other porcupines, so then they wouldn't be scratching
each other, because they all have quills."^
In the third-year interview, an African-American woman interviews Sonia, now age
eleven. In the presence of this woman, Sonia finally feels free to open up and assert herself. In
the story of the porcupine, she insists that the animal be pushed out: "Beat it! Because he won't
hsten you've got to do something about it." Her interviewer asks, "Who is right when two
people disagree?" and then follows up with "Is that even a good question to ask?" Sonia quickly
responds, '"Yes... because it makes you think."^ With this interviewer, Sonia is able to tell the
whole story about the teacher who blamed her unjustly for what she didn't do. Sonia then
follows up with a story about a teacher who wanted her to read a book that the teacher chose for
an assignment, rather than a book that Sonia chose herself. Sonia eventually gets her mother to
advocate for her, but Sonia is also aware of the power dynamic at play, "upsetting the teacher
might mean 'bad grades' and risking what she and her mother most want, for Sonia eventually to
go 'to the best college in the United States'."^
Speaking with the African-American interviewer gives Sonia a safe space in which to
express her feelings, tell her story, and even explore some of the racial and power dynamics of
the school environment. Within the interview environment, in the presence of someone who is
truly hearing her voice, spoken and unspoken transactions take place that involve more than the
questions in the interview's script:
^ Ibid., 65-66.
^ Ibid., 69.
^ Ibid., 72.
Though Sonia and her interviewer do not talk explicitly about race, about what it
feels like to be left out or drowned out because of skin color, there is, it seems to
us, a palpable communication, a shared knowledge. Sonia and her interviewer are
moved by each other, by familiar language and experience, and when the
interviewer breaks from the structure of the interview to respond to Sonia's
feelings and thoughts, when she invites real conversation and genuine
relationship, Sonia tells a story of courage and resistance in bold, straightforward
With the interviewer, and perhaps with her own mother, Sonia has that space in which
she can tell her story and express her anger without necessarily having to submit to the "tyranny
of the nice and kind." But many women do not have this safe space that assures that their
stories will be heard. Brown and Gilligan contend that many girls are subject to "voice-
training," especially by "good women," which "undermines these girls' experiences and
reinforces images of female perfection by implying that 'nice girls' are always calm, controlled,
quiet, that they never cause a ruckus, are never noisy, bossy, or aggressive, are not anxious and
do not cause trouble."' ' Although Brown and Gilligan term this socialization "voice-training," it
might more aptly be labeled, "voice suppression." The lack of a safe listening space applies both
to women within the dominant culture who must be inculturated to "fit in," and it certainly
applies to women who are marginalized in that culture. That Sonia met up with the African-
American interviewer was a moment of grace for both women.
Rewriting Childhood Stories
Sometimes, a great deal of courage is required to change the patterns already ingrained in
us as children. Brown and Gilligan in their study talk about the pressure by adults on the
schoolgirls to create situations that always have "happy endings." But often, having a "happy
'° Ibid., 73.
" Ibid., 61.
ending" means giving up something, usually power to an authority figure, "revealing the power
of 'nice and polite' to cover over strong feelings and mask conflict."'^
One girl, Lauren, tells a story about a dispute over using the computer at school. She is
using the computer and leaves the machine to put her books away. When Lauren came back,
another girl is using the computer. Although Lauren initially states that she got there first, she
decides to share the computer with the other girl because of the anticipation of a teacher's
intervention, which might require her to share the computer or require both girls to forfeit it for
the rest of the day. What appears to be a "happy ending" of cooperation, upon further
conversation with the interviewer, reveals itself to be a concession of the teacher's authority and
a forfeiture of rights. In the retelling of the story, Lauren chooses not to insist on the use of the
computer, and eventually the other girl gets to use the computer by herself. "Not wanting 'to get
in trouble and have the teacher yell at me,' Lauren capitulates to the anticipated wishes of the
teacher, giving up her desire to work on the computer alone. Thus what we are led to believe is a
polite and happy ending turns out to mean that the other girl is happy because she finally has the
computer all to herself."'^
How in adulthood do we learn to rewrite these fairy tales of manufactured cooperation
when we need to assert ourselves? Priscilla J. Herbison in her book of essays of pastoral advice
about dealing with anger, God Knows We Get Angry, tells a similar story about herself in
adulthood in an essay ironically titled, 'The Law of Kindness." Priscilla, who has a hearing
impairment, needed accommodations when she attended law school. She used a study carrel that
'^ Ibid., 45.
'^ Ibid., 46.
had special acoustics so that she could transcribe tapes. One day, two other students knocked on
the door of the carrel and asked her to turn off the tape recorder. At first, she was apologetic,
until one of the students said, "How did you get this carrel? Only law review and moot court
students get these, and we both know you don't deserve it!" When Priscilla tried to explain that
she needed the carrel because of its acoustics, one of the women stated, "We've submitted an
appeal to the library staff. You have no right to be here. You're taking the space of someone
who deserves it."^^
At first, Priscilla felt self-doubt, as their comments reinforced her own insecurities about
making it in law school. But, her second response was anger: "I wish for just one day that they
were hearing impaired." Finally, she decided to act: "Energy I didn't know I had surged
through me. I was without a doubt, angry!" She went downstairs to the head librarian, Carrie,
and explained that even though the special carrels were reserved for law review students,
Priscilla needed the accommodations. Carrie went to the library director. Dr. Theil, who offered
Priscilla the use of her office, which was soundproof, not only for the rest of the semester, but
until she finished her degree. Priscilla was happily overwhelmed by this new accommodation:
"My anger had been swept away by this kindness. And any shame or doubt or guilt at being
angry had gone too. Now I could put my energy back where it belonged, studying law."^^ The
irony of the story is that the "kindness" experienced by Herbison is not the superficial
compromise of the tyranny of "nice and kind." If Herbison had been a "good girl," she would
Priscilla J. Herbison, God Knows we Get Angry: Healthy Ways to Deal with it (Notre Dame, Indiana: Sorin
Books, 2002), 25.
'^ Ibid., 26-27.
not have gotten the accommodations she required. What Herbison achieves by asserting herself
and making her needs known is not kindness, but justice.
Does Anger Make Us Sick?
The "tyranny of the nice and kind" is not merely a form of training that is instilled in
young girls to socialize them. This tyranny is often internalized as the girl becomes an adult
woman, and the consequence may have physical, as well as psychological results. In her study
of the physical effects on women of anger, Patricia Munhall has seen what she calls the
"transformation of anger" into physical illness or pathology. She describes situations in which
anger is transformed into ailments commonly suffered by women, such as migraines and
gastrointestinal disorders, as well as into what she calls self-abusive disorders, such as obesity.
In one story in Munhall' s study, a nice and kind woman, Susan, ends up with a physical
ailment over a disappointment because she has failed to express her feehngs about a birthday
party. Susan, who is described as a "religious woman" who "prays and fasts" and also "does
very good things for people," is turning 50.^ Instead of planning a party just for her on the day
of her actual birthday, her husband instead plans with one of his friends to throw a joint party for
Susan and his friend's wife, a "100 birthday party on the following weekend. This hijacking
of Susan's party, which Munhall terms "passive aggressive" behavior by the husband, does not
result in Susan voicing any expHcit anger: "She did not express anger to anyone, or even
feelings of disappointment. Everything was fine, except on her 50' birthday she was in bed
Patricia L. Munhall, "The Transformation of Anger into Pathology," in In Women's Experience, ed. Patricia L.
Munhall (New York: National League for Nursing Press, 1995), 299.
before 9 PM with a headache that literally prevented her from seeing."' On the day of the
birthday party, Susan behaves well, but goes home with another migraine.
This story of what might be a relatively trivial social situation in the greater scheme of
things provides an everyday example of how physical illness might be linked to an emotional
state. On a more serious level, Munhall deals with some health issues, such as overeating and
obesity, which are literally lethal physical responses to "stuffing" emotions. With eating issues,
the initial response to the anger eventually leads to self-loathing, redirects anger at the self, and
causes the whole cycle to repeat itself:
Women who substitute eating or cooking for more direct expressions of anger
sooner or later return to it. . ..The pleasurable preparation and eating that
momentarily relieved their pain fade into memory. The anger remains.
Afterward, the woman comes to direct the anger at herself. She becomes her own
victim. And she may very well repeat this cycle again and again.
Munhall critiques health professionals who attempt to deal merely with the physical
components of substance abuse, particularly obesity, without examining the deeper motivations
behind these health-sabotaging behaviors. She finds the coupling of the word morbid with
obesity as indicadve of how life-threatening the problem is at many levels: "Phrases like 'She is
going to kill herself if she keeps going like that' are unfortunately very true. . .Insight and
intervention need to be where the pain is, and that pain is often repressed anger."'
In her book on anger, Carol Tavris is rather dismissive of links between physiological
ailments, such as heart disease or eating disorders, or psychological disorders, such as
^' Ibid., 299-300.
'^ Ibid., 303.
'^ Munhall, 303.
depression, with anger's expression or suppression. ^° To Tavris' arguments, I have two
responses. First, Tavris' book was written in 1982, so some of the research on health that she
uses is older data. But more importantly, some of Tavris' arguments about the level of physical
distress related to anger, particularly hypertension (high blood pressure) and other cardiovascular
symptoms are related not necessarily to anger, but to the social location of the person
experiencing anger, particularly ethnicity and class. What goes unexamined in these instances is
the link between the relationship between powerlessness experienced in some of these situations
and the anger. For example, Tavris discusses a study of white and black working and middle-
class people who stated that they would report an unjust boss to the union. In that situation, she
mentions that in this study, working class black men living in stressful neighborhoods in Detroit
had the highest blood-pressure levels. Her point is that the health consequence was not based on
their expression or suppression of anger around a situation, but on where these men lived. ^
Social location and social isolation appear to have a role in the health consequences of
anger. For instance, she cites a study of Japanese- American men, who when removed from their
communities and adopted the "American" independent hfestyle, developed a greater likelihood
of heart disease. She describes the values that define the "Type A" American male:
^° Carol Tavris, Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982). Chapter 4 of Tavris'
book, entitled, "Stress, Illness, and Your Heart - Myths of Suppressed Anger" (pp. 99-1 19) offers a variety of
reasons for her belief that suppressed or repressed anger is not the source of physical illness. Her reasons for this
belief are: 1) Illness cannot be attributed to a single emotion, and anger is often one of several difficult emotions felt
in times of stress; 2) There is a confusion about the causes and the effects of illness, and that both doctors and
patients, once the patient feels sick will attribute the illness to angry or stressful feelings; 3) There is a tendency for
people to make up psychological or emotional causes for diseases for which there is no discernible cause. Tavris
also makes a quite valid argument that releasing anger inappropriately can be as damaging as repressing it.
Although Tavris' arguments are reasonable, I believe that over the past 20 or so years, so much research has been
done in the medical field on the relationship between the mind, the emotions, and the body, that it is impossible to
dismiss repressed anger as not playing a role in physical and psychological disorders, including heart disease, eating
disorders, and addictions.
^' Ibid., 109.
"Independence and individualism: getting ahead of others, striving to succeed. In the American
corporate system, this often means leaving friends and families behind." Women who are at
risk for heart disease are not always necessarily those who work outside the home, but those who
also lack support systems and a sense of control. This group included stay-at-home mothers who
felt isolated in the suburbs and who were more prone to depression. A more surprising detail
was that rather than high-achieving women in managerial positions, the working women with the
highest rate of heart disease were "clerical workers who are or were married, have children, are
stuck in low-paying jobs with little chance of promotion, and who work for bosses who they feel
In her readiness to dismiss the expression or suppression of anger as the cause of illness,
Tavris perhaps does not thoroughly examine the power dynamic in these situations. Those who
feel that they have the least power, the least ability to control their situation, are also the most
likely to become sick. In a way, we can move back to the early deficient analysis of anger by
Aristotle and Aquinas. Those who are in a social position to feel comfortable expressing anger
also have the social and material comfort level to do so without social or health repercussions;
those who are marginalized due to gender race, class, or social location can either express or
suppress their anger, but the social, emotional and physical cost is significant.
In his analysis of collective anger, Andrew Sung Park emphasizes that the anger of the
oppressed cannot be divorced from their social location. He specifically cites the 1994 data on
stroke and heart disease among African Americans:
The study reports that the risk of death from stroke is much higher in African
Americans ages forty-five to fifty-five than among Caucasians in the same age
range. The probabihty of a forty-five-year-old African American dying of a
stroke is four to five times higher than the average forty-five-year-old Caucasian.
Injustice doubly victimizes groups of the oppressed. Prejudice and discrimination
marginalize their career and social lives, and anger harms their health and mental
well-being. Anger provokes their hearts to beat faster, their arteries and veins to
increase blood pressure, and their lungs to breathe heavy. Continual anger
generates ceaseless stress. As a corollary, their hearts, arteries, and lungs become
weak and stiff. The oppressed undergo double victimization.^'*
More recently, the Boston Globe has cited that over 100 studies since 2000 have shown
the damaging health effects of racism, specifically on African- American women. In particular,
one study mentioned the deterioration of the carotid arteries in black women who believed that
racism was a stress in their lives. According to Globe writer Madeline Drexler, this research
could have critical importance in evaluating the significance of the impact of racism on health:
"The findings could profoundly change the way we look at both racism and health. It could
unmask racism as a bona fide public health problem. "^^
While Patricia Munhall does not designate the subjects in her study by race, she is clear
about the physical consequences of anger due to gender oppression. She describes the
consequences of what she calls the "existential experience of anger for women": "(1)
psychosomatic occurrences such as headaches, insomnia, ulcers, back pain, and obesity... and (2)
experiential feehngs; emptiness, helplessness, fear of losing control, fear of losing relationships,
withdrawal, and 'nonfeeling.'" For a woman suffering the combined oppressions of sexism
Andrew Sung Park, From Hurt to Healing : A Theology of the Wounded (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press,
^^ Madeline Drexler, "How Racism Hurts - Literally," Boston Globe, July 14 2007, sec. Ideas,
^^ Munhall, "The Transformation of Anger into Pathology," 321.
and racism, one can assume that these consequences may have even more life-threatening
Another Double Bind
For women who are in leadership positions in the church, particularly women clergy, the
"tyranny of nice and kind" carries an additional burden. The prohibition against anger as sin
combined with the suppression of anger that is necessary to create "the perfect girl" creates
incredible pressure on women clergy. As clergy, they are expected to be perfect as Christ was
perfect; as women, they are expected to be perfect as well, which means that they must have
successfully completed the appropriate "voice-training," "always calm, controlled, quiet."
Alastair Campbell speaks of a different form of the tyranny that Brown and Gilligan describe, a
tyranny exclusive to ministers in the Christian tradition, the tyranny of "chronic niceness."^^
Campbell provides a thorough and compassionate analysis of the role of anger in the
minister's own spiritual and psychological self-understanding, as well as the value of
understanding anger in the context of pastoral care. Although his approach is not a feminist
approach, his insights certainly apply to the challenges that female clergy face in this area.
According to Campbell, a healthy minister and ministry must acknowledge anger: "Anger may
be denied, but it cannot be eliminated from human life, and the more we refuse to face up to it
the more it will undermine the possibilities of true Christian love through a cloying 'niceness' or
an ill-concealed resentment."
^^ Alastair V. Campbell, The Gospel of Anger (London: SPCK, 1986), 60.
^^ Ibid., 94.
Although Aristotle's philosophy and ethic of anger may have fallen short from a justice
perspective, he was certainly correct in one aspect of his assessment - that is, that people who
bottle up their anger and turn it into resentment are burdensome to themselves and others. Often
a clergyperson must spend time dealing with people who are excessively needy, tiresome,
boring, and sometimes even angry themselves. Rather than setting boundaries, the clergyperson
can fall into the trap "of a tedium which can make the helper feel over-used or exploited, yet
guilty for such lack of patience." The ultimate victims of the repressed anger that the
clergyperson feels are usually those closest to her: "Not uncommonly, the minister's family are
the victims of these outer and inner demands for unremitting niceness. They alone are allowed
to experience the 'real' man or woman, but much of the anger they receive has in fact been
diverted from its intended target in the church membership or in the pastor's more difficult
A minister who is connected to her own anger and who is able to accept that emotion in
others is actually one who is more able to deal with others pastorally. For example, when
ministering to the sick, the clergyperson who understands healthy anger can empathize with the
sick person and help the sick to articulate emotions: "Effective pastoral care entails helping the
suffering person name the enemy directly and identifying what is needed from others to give real
help in their struggle."^' Especially in the case of loss and bereavement, anger may be present,
even anger against the deceased love one for deserting the survivor. At times like these,
platitudes and piety may actually be denying the feelings of the suffering. When a person loses a
^^ Ibid., 104.
^° Ibid., 103.
^' Ibid., 97.
loved one, the grieving person might need "a hstener who does not share their fear of negative
feelings, who will let them be angry, however unreasonable that may seem." What someone
may need pastorally might be Job's wife, not Job's friends with their facile rationalizations about
the meaning of suffering. If the expectation that we put on those in ministry to be always "nice
and kind," to never understand and experience anger, we are then asking the minister not to
respond to others as a whole person and not to encourage those suffering loss to be whole
Can We Break the Code?
Patricia Munhall has a bumper sticker on her bedroom door, "Thelma Louise Live," and
she writes her own ending to that story; "In the last scene, the car actually landed comfortably
after a five-foot descent onto a road to freedom."^^ As a film buff and a feminist, "Thelma and
Louise" had been an unexamined favorite of mine, a movie I enjoyed watching accompanied by
a bag of popcorn, a beer, and my teen-aged daughter. However, like Munhall, I, too, am
distressed that the film ends with a cinematically picturesque suicide, rather than the women's
survival. In many ways, "Thelma and Louise" is an improvement on many films about women's
anger, films in which the woman is psychotic, as in "Fatal Attraction" or "Basic Instinct," or
gratuitously vengeful, as in "Kill Bill."
Movies, like Bible stories, are reflections of the myths of the culture that creates them,
and one of the myths embodied in the romanticism of "Thelma and Louise" is that that the
^^ Ibid., 100.
^^ Munhall, "The Transformation of Anger into Pathology," 297.
existence of such a fable indicates how far our society has come in vahdating women's righteous
emotions, particularly anger. However, we have not come as far as we have thought.
As a movie buff, I am fascinated by older American movies, particularly those made
during the pre-Code era. The Pre-Code era was a period between 1929 and 1934, during which
films were relatively frank about sexuality and social issues. During this era, Marlene Dietrich
sang in nightclubs sporting a tux, Irene Dunne could have two out-of-wedlock pregnancies, an
extramarital relationship, a successful career in social work, and go "unpunished," Anna May
Wong could kill her warlord rapist without repercussions, and a cross-dressing Greta Garbo as
Queen Christina could begin a movie by kissing one of ladies-in-waiting on the lips, end up in
bed with John Gilbert, and do it all without giving up her throne. ^"^ In July 1, 1934, the Pre-Code
era ended with the enforcement of the Production Code, which ruled that sexuality could not be
portrayed on film, and that those who transgressed established morality would have to be
"punished" by the end of the picture. Garbo becomes such classic heroines as the adulterous
Anna Karenina, who loses her child and throws herself under a train, or the courtesan Camille,
who loves a younger man and dies of consumption by the end of the story. Marlene Dietrich as
the prostitute Destry gets shot. Irene Dunne acts in light comedies and sings in musicals. Anna
May Wong disappears.
^"^ The films described are Morocco (1930), Ann Vickers (1933), Shanghai Express (1932), and Queen Christina
(1933). This is not to say that sexism and racism were not still present in films of that era, but that "boundaries"
were beginning to be crossed. In Shanghai Express, the Marlene Dietrich character has lived as a sexual
adventuress, but still ends up with the hero; Anna May Wong spends a night being sexually abused and kills her
abuser, which is seen as an act of retributive justice, and she is portrayed as a courageous character. Queen
Christina's frankness about the title character's sexual relationships was one of the "last straws" that brought on the
implementation of the code.
Mick LaSalle, "Pre-Code Hollywood," in GreenCine. Available from
http://www.greencine.com/static/primers/precode.jsp (accessed February 2008). In actuality, the Production Code
was established in 1930, but was not enforced until 1934, when pressure from the Roman Catholic Church and the
formation of the Legion of Decency "cracked down" on "immoral" films.
Fast forward to 1991. Thelma leaves her abusive husband; Louise kills Thelma's rapist;
Thelma has great sex with Brad Pitt; both women give a lewd trucker his "just desserts." And
the ending? Both women die. The Virginia Slims ads may say, "You've come a long way,
baby," but have we really? Perhaps the movies that have emerged since the abandonment of the
Production Code in the 1 960s have become more explicit and graphic in their depiction of sex
and violence, even to the point of visually assaulting the viewer, but as we watch the
transgressive protagonists of "Thelma and Louise" receive essentially the death penalty for their
actions, we must question: how much have things actually changed? Remember, the Virginia
Slims slogan, "You've come a long way" also comes from the marketer of a product that will
eventually kill the user.
If I were to translate the story of Thelma and Louise into Biblical terms, I could retitle the
story, "Tamar and Judith on the Run." Thelma, who leaves her abusive husband, resembles both
Tamar and the concubine. Her near-rape triggers the action that begins their "joyride"-her
friend Louise/Judith shoots the rapist. As the story progresses, we learn that Louise herself was
once raped, and as the women become renegades, their action takes on a character that extends
beyond their individual situations. The Biblical Judith makes clear that she is not acting merely
for herself and for her village, but in her speech before going to the enemy camp, she mentions
all the women who have been raped during war and conquest. When Thelma and Louise finally
turn on the crudely lecherous truck driver, they appear to be acting not only on their own behalf,
but also on the behalf of all women who are similarly harassed. ("Do you think women really
like that?" they ask him about his lewd gestures.) The scene in which they blow up the truck is
one that usually draws cheers from a female audience. Meanwhile, back on the home front, the
Levite husband and the smooth-talking boy-toy with the tender words, Brad Pitt, are in the
process of betraying the women. The film races to its conclusion as all the twelve tribes of
Israel, manning a fleet of police cars, sirens blaring and a flock of helicopters, stirring up desert
dust, descend on the two women— "overkill" in every sense of the word. The Harvey Keitel
character, the man in charge of the investigation, is a powerless deity whose pleas for mercy for
the women end up being completely disregarded. The women's choice is love, freedom, and
death, as they ride off that cliff, their fate sealed with their kiss. In this myth, neither Tamar nor
Judith survives. At least the Biblical Judith could win freedom for her people and retire in
comfort as an independent woman.
Singer/songwriter Dar Williams has a song, "You're Aging Well," in which she speaks of
the conflict between the myths and stories women are told to believe about themselves: "All I
could eat was the poisonous apple/And that's not a story I was meant to survive."" Clearly, in
"Thelma and Louise," the story is that women can assert themselves, but that the consequences
can be fatal. It is a story of freedom, love, and death, and neither of the women is given the
opportunity to "age well" in a story that is not survivable. In other stories, the stories of the
young girls interviewed by Carol Gilligan and Lyn Brown, girls are being asked to create stories
with "happy endings," endings in which they must sacrifice their voices in order to "fit in"; these
could be endings that require the eating of that poisoned apple. For Williams, this is not an
option: "And with anger she found she could pound every word./But one voice got through,
caught her up by surprise. It said, 'Don't hold us back, we're the story you tell."^^ How can we
^^ Dar Williams, You're Aging Well (New York, New York: Razor & Tie Music, 1995).
find stories that we are meant to survive, stories that can emerge from "the one voice that gets
More than Surviving Our Stories
The answer may not be in merely surviving our stories, but in embracing the energy of
our anger and transforming it, not into physical and psychological pathology, but into energy and
even into the life force that can effect change, not only in our own lives, but even in the
oppressive systems in which we live. Kathleen Fischer's book. Transforming Fire, explores the
transformative effects of anger in women's lives, including her own. Kathleen Fischer is a
former Roman Catholic nun who eventually left the convent, married, and as a result, was barred
from teaching theology at the university level at Roman Catholic institutions of higher education.
Her story, which could have been one of bitterness and despair, had a different ending. In
Transforming Fire, she speaks about transforming anger as part of a vital creative process in her
own journey when she was told that she could not teach anymore:
I experienced a deep anger at the church I had served for many years. . .One day I
realized that my anger was destroying me. I had to find creative ways to use it. I
stopped focusing on what I was barred from doing, and asked myself what else
there was that I loved and valued. What did I want to do that I had power to bring
about? I began to write my first book.^^
Before writing Transforming Fire, Fischer wrote Women at the Well, a book on spiritual
direction for women. In that book, she opens up the possibilities for revelation in the context of
anger in one's prayer life, encouraging her readers to be "real" with God: "Anger is a message,
a revelation... What might God be revealing to me in this situation? ....If we are attempting to
hear God's word, we must listen to anger as carefully as we listen to joy, peace, fear, and
Kathleen R. Fischer, Transforming Fire : Women using Anger Creatively (New York: Pauhst Press, 1999), 176.
fatigue." For Fischer, tlie cycle of injustice, anger, struggle, and even the small deaths that
come out of this sacred work is our own way of participating in the cycle of death and
resurrection: "Using anger creatively unites us with the Spirit at work in the world to bring hfe
out of death. The creative process itself, in both its beauty and pain, is a concrete way of
experiencing the Holy." ^°
Another woman who was able to transform a story of anger and struggle into the creative
energy for change is Joan Chittister. In her book Scarred by the Struggle, Chittister talks about
her own journey with anger and disappointment. Chittister had many struggles, both physical
and spiritual, as she emerged a survivor from a childhood bout with polio. As a young nun and
teacher, she applied for a Master's Degree in a writing program, but was faced with an abrupt
phone call by the superior of her order telling her that it "would be better for my humility to go
to our summer camp as third cook than to go to school.""^' For a woman in the Roman Catholic
Church of the 1960s, already a marginalized position, humility was probably the last virtue that
Joan needed to be "taught." Just as in Kathleen Fischer's situation, the institution that had
"power over" Joan Chittister decided what her ministry in the church would be, but the Holy
Spirit and her passion for writing and righteousness had other ideas.
Chittister' s "call to write" was put on hold for a while, but her talent and voice became
honed by her difficult experiences within the patriarchal culture of the Roman Catholic Church.
Kathleen R. Fischer, Women at the Well : Feminist Perspectives on Spiritual Direction (New York: Pauhst Press,
Fischer, Transforming Fire, 174.
Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub,
Chittister has remained within the Church as a passionate voice for the rights of women, as an
advocate for social justice, and as a critic of the United States' policies at home and abroad.
While some women have chosen to leave that institution, she has used her voice to call the
Church to see itself more clearly and to become what she feels God is calling it to be. In a 1990
interview, Chittister responded to the question of why she chooses to remain in the Church:
My Christian feminist commitment to the equality, the dignity and the humanity
of all persons and the need to change structures to make that so does not come as
a result of my rejection of what I see as bad in the Church. It comes as an
inevitable recognition of the great, the magnetizing, the empowering, the
energizing good that is inherent for women in the Church and promised for
women in the Church, even when I cannot see it yet being brought to fullness,
even in the Church. "^^
Chittister' s voice, stemming from her life of experience of struggle and anger, is another
example of someone inspired what Carol Saussy calls the "anger of hope," the anger that is
transformed into a vision for change.
Kate Fischer and Joan Chittister, educated women living in the United States, are both
women who are privileged enough to survive and transform their stories. However, many
women in the world are not fortunate enough to be able to survive their stories. In her essay,
"When Justice Collapses," Nantawan Boonsparat Lewis relates the story of Buo, a Thai woman
who, coerced by the offer of a job in a restaurant, is kidnapped into the sex trade industry.
Although she is eventually able to escape, she suffers rape, abuse, and acquires a sexually
Joan Chittister, Womanstrength : Modern Church, Modern Women (Kansas City Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1990), 43.
transmitted disease during her ordeal.'^^ After her escape, she is diagnosed with cancer that
metastasizes throughout her body, but despite terminal illness, she is committed to telling her
story: "Most women who are forced into the sex trade would live in silence for fear of social
stigma and social condemnation. Buo chose the opposite. With death staring her in the face, she
vows to fight on with one certainty: 1 don't want anyone to suffer like me — ever again'. ""^"^
Bug's history may resemble the Levite's concubine, as she is sexually brutalized by multiple
men, her favors distributed "globally" in the sex trade, but before her death, at least she is the
one who gets to tell her own story.
To Be a Renegade or To Be in Relation
Not all women can remain within a spiritual tradition that has hurt them and yet continue
to be sustained by it. Chittister's presence and voice is a gift to the institution in which she
remains, as well as a gift to all of us who read her books and columns. However, sensitive
recognition is needed for those who must leave traditional religious institutions. Some must
leave because their anger of hope is becoming the anger of despair; some are no longer being
spiritually fed. Kathleen Fischer notes that this decision is also an aspect of discernment and
spiritual growth: "One aspect of discernment in relation to anger is how closely a woman will be
associated with the institutional church. ""^^ She mentions that some women "can only attend
liturgies on an intermittent basis or must stay away from such celebrations completely for a time.
Nantawan Boonprasat Lewis, "When Justice Collapses : A Religious Response to Sexual Violence and
Trafficking in Women in Asia," in Off' the Menu: Asian and Asian North America Women's Religion and Theology,
ed. Rita Nakashima Brock, et al. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 218-219.
'^ Fischer, Women at the Well, 187.
Still other women choose to change denominations or to leave the church completely." Some
of us leave and come back later when we feel more whole, or when we have families and feel the
need for spiritual anchoring. Some of us find spirituality in other ways, in relationships with
friends, in nature, or in becoming "seekers" by exploring other traditions, including non-Western
spiritual traditions. In my own story, I chose to leave my denomination of origin, the Roman
Catholic Church, because as a laywoman, I felt that I had little power to change that institution.
Yet, I recognize that in my institution of choice, the Episcopal Church, there are still issues of
hierarchy and patriarchy, and within the Christian tradition, it is difficult to escape the
consequences of the history of a religion that began with an itinerant healer and preacher of love
and justice, but somehow ended up inextricably tied to imperial power, patriarchy, and
Although women are tempted to become "renegades" like Thelma and Louise-
renegades from our religious denominations and even at times, renegades from the structures and
systems within society that oppress us— Jesus himself was not really a "renegade," anymore than
he was a Stoic, detached from his body and his emotions, or an ascetic, such as the Essenes,
removing himself from worldly concerns. Jesus was very much in the society in which he lived,
walking amongst the crowds, participating in synagogue life, creating stories that related to the
daily lives of the people with whom he walked and talked. His intention was to transform the
world both by the way he Hved and by commenting on it and even criticizing it. He may have
been a subversive and a dissenter, but he was not an outlaw in the "Thelma and Louise" sense.
Nonetheless, renegades have their value. Without the early examination and criticism of
sexism and religious patriarchy by feminists such as Mary Daly, those who followed her may not
have had the courage to question these structures themselves and initiate change. She was one
of the first to acknowledge the transformative power of anger for women's experiencing their
own authenticity and for inspiring change: "Breaking out of the circle requires anger, the 'wrath
of God' speaking God-self in an organic surge toward life... Anger, then, can trigger and sustain
movement from the experience of nothingness to recognition of participation in being... When
women take positive steps to move out of patriarchal space and time, there is a surge of new
life.""^^ In her essay, "The Power of Anger in the Work of Love," Beverly Harrison
acknowledges the debt that subsequent feminist theologians owe to Daly: "Among the many
debts we owe Mary Daly is this: She has described the problem [of misogyny in human history]
in an uncompromising way and has made it impossible for any intellectually honest person to
deny the necessity of a feminist critique of Christianity."
The shortcoming that Harrison sees in Daly's work is that Daly ventures into the
"language of otherworldliness.""^^ Harrison's evaluation is one in which I concur. Although I
cannot fault Daly for eventually abandoning Christianity, as many women have done, I do fault
her theology with promoting disengagement with the world. My perusal of some of her work,
particularly Gyn Ecology, perceives in her imagery and rhetoric a creation of a separate space for
women that appears to be removed from reahty. The world of the Spinners, the Net Trap, the
Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father : Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1974),
Beverly Wildung Harrison, "The Power of Anger in the Work of Love," in Making the Connections: Essays in
Feminist Social Ethics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 4.
'" Ibid., 6.
Crone, the Hags, and the Harpies reminds me of a kind of feminist magical kingdom that implies
that in order for women to be whole, this is the kind of world that they need to inhabit in rhetoric,
metaphor, and imagination. ^° Of course, the context of the creation of these alternate stories is
feminism of the 1970s and early 1980s, in which many women, scarred by their struggles with
patriarchy in the church and in society, also required for a time the creation of alternate myths
and stories which they were meant to survive. However, in Pure Lust,^^ Mary Daly makes
explicit her philosophy of radical feminist separatism, which is not as dressed up with myth and
metaphor. Beverly Harrison asserts that a feminist theology and ethic cannot evolve from a
spirituality which, for whatever reason, is divorced from engagement with the world:
"Feminists, whose commitments must be to deep and profound change, should have no part in
supporting a world-denying spirituality or in encouraging ways of speaking about the world that
may invite withdrawal from struggle."
Mary Daly would probably not appreciate being compared with Thelma and Louise, but
like them, she is a renegade. We need renegades, but their bravery often has a tragic and even
self-destructive component. Thelma and Louise may be asserting themselves, but ultimately,
they end up living outside of society's boundaries. They are courageous, but their resistance is
part of a fantasy and ends up being only for themselves. They end up killing one rapist, blowing
up one male chauvinist's truck, and dying violently in a scenic location, but the world is not
transformed by their actions. Through a series of mishaps, poor judgment, impulsivity, and
plain old bad luck, they end up at a point of no return. They cannot and do not return to the
Mary Daly, Pure Lust : Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), especially 385-424.
^' Ibid., 471.
Harrison, "The Power of Anger in the Work of Love," 6.
world to change it. This is the tragedy of their story and the story of many women whose anger
makes them feel that they must leave, rather than stay and try to change the systems and
structures that oppress them.
Of course, leaving and staying both have their risks. Leaving can involve isolation and
death; at least Thelma and Louise have each other. So many of us relate to their myth because of
the love and solidarity expressed through their relationship, which ends in a kiss. Remaining in
the world but trying to effect change can also have the same result as living "on the run," as
Jesus Christ has shown us. Tragically, sometimes the fate of those who try to change the world
from within and those who are renegades is not that much different. Both Martin Luther King
and Malcolm X suffered similar endings. As Beverly Harrison states: "As women have known,
but also as men like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Romero understood, as any must
know who dare to act deeply and forcefully out of the power of love, radical love is a dangerous
and serious business. "^^
It is the relationship between anger and love that is so transformative, for without love,
anger can indeed be destructive. While Aquinas could not identify an opposite for anger, Daly's
labeling the opposite as "dissociation" and Carol Saussy's study of women identifying it with
numbness and indifference ^ elucidate the connection between anger and passion. The leap from
passion to love is not a difficult one to make. We do not feel passionate about those things that
we do not care about. Anger's companion is not always hatred, but more often love.
" Ibid. 19.
^^ Daly, Pure Lust, 370.
^^ Carroll Saussy, The Gift of Anger : A Call to Faithful Action (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press,
When Jesus was angry, he did not speak out of hatred, but out of love. Matthew's gospel
quotes Jesus following up the long "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you
hypocrites!" speech with an image of the compassionate mother: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you
who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your
children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings." (Matt. 23.13-37) As a mother, I
can identify in his words the many times I have spoken angrily at my own children, the people
whom I love most in the world.
Beverly Harrison sees in the ethic of anger and the power of love that our call to follow
Jesus is also a call to follow our passion in a way that is deeply relational:
Like Jesus, we are called to a radical activity of love, to a way of being in the
world that deepens relation, embodies and extends community, passes on the gift
of life. Like Jesus, we must live out this calling in a place and time where the
distortions of loveless power stand in conflict with the power of love."^
Anger: The Interstitial Passion
Although Thomas Aquinas did not fully explore or perhaps even comprehend the
significant power dynamics in his explication of a theology and ethic of anger, he did get one
thing right: that anger is not a single emotion, but a compilation of feelings - hope, sadness,
despair, desire, to name a few. That he could not identify its opposite (although Mary Daly and
Carol Saussy have made a pretty effective stab at it) indicates how difficult this particular
emotion was to pin down. As Kathleen Fischer summarizes in her discussion of spiritual
direction and women's anger: "Many different feelings lie beneath the secondary response we
^^ Harrison, "The Power of Anger in the Work of Love," 18.
name when we say, 'I am angry.' These emotions are fear, hurt, frustration, outrage,
powerlessness." Carol Tavris employs some useful food images to illustrate the complexity of
anger, describing different emotions as "coming in bunches like grapes" or comparing intimate
anger with peeling the layers of an onion. She cautions against simplifying anger: "Because
most of us have a stew of emotions when something troubling has occurred, to emphasize one
emotion and exclude another may simplify the problem but it restricts our choices. "^^
The image of the stew is especially appropriate because not only can the stew boil over; it
is also composed of diverse ingredients. Rita Nakashima Brock uses the term "interstitial
integrity" to describe the integration experiences of the world as Japanese- American woman.
For her, "Integration brings many diverse parts together, the way a collection of ingredients
finally makes a dish." "Interstitial" is the connective tissue of our experiences: "Interstitial lives
inside things, distinct but inseparable from what would otherwise be disconnected... It makes a
Hving, pulsating unity, both many and one."^^
Brock tells the story of Mitsuye Yamada, a Japanese- American feminist poet who was
imprisoned at Manzanar during World War II. Her early response to her feelings about her
imprisonment was silence: "For years she did not speak of her anguish and anger about this
injustice." Initially, the silence was an attempt to protect her daughter from experiencing the tale
of the poisoned apple that she was not meant to survive: "She chose silence partly as a strategy
to protect her daughter, to shield her from the poisons of racism and the horrors and humiliations
" Fischer, Women at the Well, 180.
Tawis, Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion, 104.
^^ Rita Nakashima Brock, "Cooking without Recipes: Interstitial Integrity," in Off the Menu, 126.
of internment." Eventually, Yamada chose to tell her daughter her story, and in that telling, as
well as in her book of poems. Desert Run, she found personal transformation and liberation:
"Yamada is reborn, created anew, by a fullness of hfe. She holds many-layered multiworlds
together with memory, silence, and speaking and by a deep commitment to justice, to beauty,
and to love."^°
A meaningful theology of anger for women must exist within these interstitial places of
our stories. When reflecting on the stories of the Old Testament, often the anger of women must
be read interstitially, that is, between the lines because often it is contained not in the voices, but
in the silence, as in the case of the concubine, or in the voice that is not heeded, like Tamar's.
Sometimes, the interstitial tissue is but a thread, as in Job's wife's one-liner. If we are women of
privilege, we have to caution ourselves against allowing our anger to become a bitterness that
causes us to turn our resentments toward others, as Sarah did. Sometimes these Biblical stories
must be recreated through our own creative process, as in the liberating voice of Japheth's
daughter, heard in Lynn Brakeman's midrash. If we have true interstitial integrity, we might
need to question who is telling the story when we read about Jezebel. At other times, we have a
full-blown liberative tale, filled with colorful puppets to play with, as in the legend of Judith.
Sometimes, we are blocked by aspects of images imposed on us by those in authority
from participating in the story. When the image of Jesus' maleness overpowers our experience
of his participation in our story, we might need to dream of a conversation in which he tells us
who he really is and what he really meant. We may even imagine other images of Jesus so that
we can connect him with our story. We may need to confront and interrogate Jesus the way the
^" Ibid., 139-40.
Canaanite woman does. Finally, Jesus himself is not a two-dimensional icon, but an interstitial
character filled with a stew of human emotions as he cleanses the temple, curses the fig tree, and
cries out in the anger of despair to the God he believes has forsaken him.
When anger is removed from story, abstracted and defined by those in power, such as
male philosophers and "Fathers of the Church," it becomes labeled as sin, especially for those
who are not in charge of creating the definitions. Anger becomes permissible for those with
"power over" certain groups, such as women and servants, and detachment and dissociation
become virtues. Even God becomes one-dimensional, capable only of detached justice. JuHan
of Norwich's relational God and a pre-teen Gertrude's tantrum provide some relief from this flat
picture of dissociative human experience as an ideal.
If we are to create a women's theology of anger, it must involve what Beverly Harrison
calls "the envisionment of radical love within a feminist moral theology that takes its signals
from what is deepest and best in women's historical struggle." ' That struggle involves our own
stories. Those stories may include our socialization and the prohibitions against expressing
anger instilled in us from childhood. We may end up having to rewrite our own stories as we
mature to document injustices we have experienced, to assert ourselves and prevent further
injustice, to keep ourselves physically and psychologically healthy in whatever vocation we
choose, and to act in solidarity with others who experience injustice. We may encounter stories
given to us by the dominant culture, stories that we may or may not be able to survive. These
stories make it even more crucial that we insist on a spirituality, a theology, an ethic that emerges
from our stories and our experiences, with meanings that we have discovered and interpreted, not
Harrison, "The Power of Anger in the Work of Love," 20.
those that others try to impose on us. To observe the many stories, experiences, and emotions
that compose our anger and our love involves what Brock calls "interstitial integrity:" "This is
the meaning of spirit in flesh, to find what is sacred by taking into our hves all that has touched
us. Interstitial integrity is this spirit in us, our struggle to hold the many in the one." The final
image that Brock offers is an embracing of our own experience: "Interstitial integrity is our
ability to lie down, spread-eagled, reaching to all the many worlds we have known, all the
memories we have been given, tempered in the cauldrons of history and geography in our one
body." In this image of embrace, we embrace our memories, stories, our anger, and our love.
Brock, "Cooking without Recipes: Interstitial Integrity," 140.
" Ibid., 140.
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